2013: And The Winner Is...

on Tuesday, December 31, 2013
If only I had been born a hundred years ago. Maybe two hundred. Sure, I'd probably have died at birth, seen my family wiped out by plague, contracted some disease we haven't even heard of today or been trampled by an elephant while performing my daring trapeze act in an Eastern European travelling circus BUT I also might have had the incredible fortune of being there when some of the great classics were first published. Assuming I was lucky enough to get an education and wasn't just sweeping chimneys or shovelling runny shit from ditches, you probably would have found me waiting in line for the latest Dostoevsky, Hugo, Austin, Dickens or Poe. Then I'd hand-press pamphlets with my opinions and run around the streets trying to get people to read them. That's how bloggers rolled back then. Alas, it just wasn't to be. Or was it?

2013 brought me the closest I think I will ever come to experiencing first hand the release of a book that is destined to be read as a classic well after I'm around to rave about it. It was a book so profoundly moving, so perfectly constructed, so enthralling, that I was in awe from the first line. At its most basic, The Infatuations by Javier Marias is a murder mystery. A woman obsesses over a couple she sees in a diner. She doesn't speak with them but feels she has some deep connection. One day she opens the paper to learn that the man has been killed. Marias uses this relatively simple premise to crack open the world as we know it. What he has to say about human nature, about the way in which society functions, about life and literature is something you'd expect to read from one of the greats of classical literature. With The Infatuations, I think he just might have joined them.

And so, Bookworms, this brings us to the end of another year. Wishing you and yours a great 2014 with many happy hours spent glued to any number of fantastic books.

Microviews Vol. 48: In By A Frenchman's Whisker

Back in January I promised to review every book that I read this year. I thought I'd finished when I closed Rivers, a great book on which to end the challenge. Unfortunately, I couldn't resist. Two more days... surely there was time to read one more. And so I bring you this final blip on the radar, a lonely island, a single white flag flapping in the wind. What can I say? A promise is a promise.

An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris
Along with Terry Pratchett, Robert Harris has long been one of my guilty pleasures. Fatherland still stands as my favourite thriller of all time as well as the best "What If?" novel I know. Engima was also a really cool take on a very exciting moment in military history. The Roman novels aren't exactly my thing, but as works of historical fiction they tower above most others. Bottom line - this guy knows how to write his way into history. Who better, then, to write the 'definitive' fictionalisation of the Dreyfus affair? There's something of The Titanic in this sort of venture. We all know how it ends. We know many of the characters. We know many of the details. And, of course, we all know Zola's classic full page indictment on the French military and judicial systems, J'Accuse. Harris comes at the story from the perspective of one of its middle tier players, Colonel Georges Picquart. Instrumental, albeit unwittingly, in the initial frame up of Alfred Dreyfus, his subsequent promotion to head of the military intelligence unit allows him to revisit the case and discover to his horror not only that Dreyfus was innocent but that the real villain had escaped any sort of justice. All of this is nothing new, but Harris creates such an incredible atmosphere of anti-semitism, conspiracy, arse-covering and downright arrogance amongst the upper echelons of the French military that the book left me seething with incredulity that they could ever have gotten away with it. Picquart was the perfect choice to tell the tale. He was, ultimately, on the side of truth and justice but he was also part of the machine that allowed it to happen. For him to be caught up and crushed in its cogs when he tries to expose the truth demonstrates the very fickle nature of power. An Officer And A Spy is a wonderful book and while it may not exactly be high literature it is a heady lesson in the feeble nature of powerful people caught in their own traps.
4 Out Of 5 Broken Sabres

2013: Words In Numbers (A Brief Statistical Interlude)

on Monday, December 30, 2013
Strap on your pocket protectors, it's time for another expedition into a world of crap I don't understand. Yes, instead of giving proper thought to the drafting of my Book Of 2013 announcement, I have been playing with Excel trying to work out how to make it add a long list of numbers (surely there must be a button for this). Three hours on and... success!!!

So here it is, my year in mathematical form (this year with a bit more explanatory memoranda).

Total Number of Pages Read: 36,830

Longest Book: In a year of pretty heavy bricks (The Luminaries at 834, The Son at 562, The Redeemer also 562, The Invention of Hugo Cabret at 530), it was Stephen King's supposed masterpiece The Stand that absolutely clobbered the competition at a whopping 1,325 pages. Alas, it still wasn't a patch on Misery.

Shortest Book: They say size doesn't matter, and a fair few short books I read this year proved more than their weight in paper. All the wonderful Finlay Lloyd Smalls (Bruno Kramzer, NY, Anxiety Soup, Nothing Ventured and The Dark Days of Matty Lang) clocked in at 60 pages, while Colm Toibin managed to scrape in a Booker nomination in just over 100 with The Testament of Mary. Elie Weisel's Open Heart was 79 pages, The Library of Unrequited Love was 96 and The Amber Amulet only 86. But it was Matthue Roth and Rohan Daniel Eason's absolutely gorgeous kids' book My First Kafka that made those others look like Proust at a mere 32 pages. You know what they say about small packages...

Average Length of Books Read in 2013: Yes I understand the statistical fallacy of this sum, but my average book was 241 pages long. And while no single book actually came in at that number, Peter Terrin's The Guard was 242 and The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, My Name Was Judas, Donnybrook and The Giant Beard That Was Evil were all 240.

Time Spent Reading (Based on an average reading speed of 90 pages an hour): 404 hours. That's almost 17 days. And to think, I could actually have slept if I wasn't so hopelessly addicted to the written word.

And there it is, Litnerds. The cold hard facts of 2013. As I learnt in year 7, when my teacher threw me out of class and refused to teach me, you can't argue with maths.

2013: The Final Countdown

on Sunday, December 29, 2013
And so another year draws to an end. As always I leave behind a bunch of books I wish I'd read but just never had the time to yank from my shelf. One or two of them might have made this list. Apologies, then, to: Middle C by William H. Gass, Southern Cross The Dog by Bill Cheng, Wreaking by James Scudamore, Property by Rutu Modan, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and The Man With The Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi. I'd also have liked to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. Oh well. Of the 90 or so books from 2013 that I read (as opposed to the other 65), these were my favourites.

THE TOP 10 OF 2013: FROM 10 TO 2

10. First Novel by Nicholas Royle. It starts as a reasonably conventional campus novel. Momentarily famous writer spends his days teaching and shagging students while trying to come up with his second novel. When a student hands in a story that might just be his life Royle shifts gears and gives us a brilliantly meta riff on identity, creation and psychosis. A highly literary Single White Female, if you will.

9. Goat Mountain by David Vann. After his last novel, Dirt, I was a little worried that Vann had run out of steam. Goat Mountain allayed that fear. Heart stopping tension when a family hunting trip turns murderous. Once again, the landscape is the real marvel, but the young boy, his father, grandfather and family friend traipsing around with a poacher's corpse makes for beautifully uncomfortable reading.

8. The Silence and The Roar by Nihad Sirees. A frightening glimpse into the suppression, exploitation and outright destruction of creativity under a dictatorial regime. After trying to help a student who has been bashed by the police, a young author is cast into bureaucratic purgatory. Kafka's nightmare vision made real.

7. It's a tie! Red Sky In Morning by Paul Lynch and Rivers by Michael Farris Smith. Two superb debuts, two harrowing reads. Red Sky In Morning might well be Ireland's answer to Blood Meridian. Brutality and injustice prevail when a good guy is forced to take terrible action. As for Rivers, no doubt JG Ballard would have been chuffed to write a dystopia as fully realised and utterly compelling as this. Can be read as a bloody ripping adventure or something far, far deeper.

6. The Devil's Workshop by Jachym Topol. Topol turns the whole Holocaust tourism concept on its head with this short, disturbing novel. A man who single handedly reinvigorated Theresienstadt is kidnapped by Belarusian operatives hell bent on making their forgotten camp into some sort of evil Disneyland. Hilarious, shocking with plenty of food for thought.

5. Carnival by Rawi Hage. Still can't make heads or tails of this completely disorientating thrill ride of a novel but I definitely know it's one of my favourites of the year. Modern life unfurled through the prism of a taxi driver cruising around town during the city's mysterious carnival.

4. Equilateral by Ken Kalfus. This whimsical tale of an hilariously madcap scheme to dig a giant equilateral triangle in the desert then light it to communicate with Mars has kept me smiling for around eight months now. Full of rich period detail and joyous storytelling, it is a ray of light in an otherwise rather dark Top 10.

3. Pink Mist by Owen Shears. I can't think of another poem (admittedly extended, and in prose form) that has ever moved me as profoundly as this. In the tradition of last year's magnificent novel Yellow Birds, Pink Mist is a searing indictment on the sheer horror and futility of war. Absolutely magnificent.

2. Harvest by Jim Crace. I have spent the last two days incessantly swapping first and second position on my list. Crace bows out of the writing game with one of the most staggering allegories of modern society ever produced. Xenophobia, selfishness, opportunism, injustice, baseless fear and hatred. It's all there in this literary mirror. Recoil in horror. The truth is very, very ugly. And yet Harvest is so beautifully executed, such a classic piece of storytelling that there is not even a hint of bitterness to Crace's pill.

Microviews Vol. 47: The 2013 Clearinghouse Sale

on Friday, December 27, 2013
Rivers by Michael Farris Smith
I have read many literary visions of the apocalypse over the years but none has struck me as so wholly realised as the storm drenched purgatory of Michael Farris Smith's superb debut novel Rivers. From the opening lines - "It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn't rained..." - the unrelenting storms remain a constant presence. It is a disturbing, bleak vision; the southern end of the USA cut off by governmental decree, its residents told to choose between going north for safety or being left to fend for themselves against the unforgiving rage of nature. Cohen is one of those who chose to stay. He couldn't bear the thought of leaving the place he has buried his wife. He drives the wastelands in his jeep, living off the land, trading with the black marketeers, hiding from the rain, whatever it takes to survive. A chance violent encounter with a young couple leads him to a strange cult and its unhinged messiah. At first he is sucked in, helping to find supplies, taking refuge in their shelter. But the followers dream of mutiny and see him as their saviour. What follows is a Mad Max like quest to find the line and escape the rain. Success, however, does not necessarily guarantee safety because just over the other side waits the one man who knows Cohen's secret. A literary dystopia of the greatest kind. Bring your snorkel.
4.5 Out Of 5 Broken Levies

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
Ten years on, Andrew Kaufman's debut still has all the charm, humour, warmth and madcap zaniness that I remember having loved when I first stumbled across it. The tale of Tom, an ordinary guy desperately trying to get his superhero wife (The Perfectionist) to see him again after being cursed by one of her ex-boyfriends (Hypno), it is about as sweet a love story as you will ever find. Kaufman plays on everyday idiosyncrasies as the basis for his superheroes - they are all normal people over-endowed with one particular trait. This hilarious skewering of everything we love and loathe in ourselves has always been the book's greatest strength. The logical gymnastics Kaufman displays in conjuring them will blow your mind. For this, the tenth anniversary edition, he has added some appendices filled with a slew of new superheroes. Far from being some crass gimmick, they serve to expand an already wonderful universe. So whether you are happening on Tom's story for the first time or just want to meet the new guys on the block (or to own the book in lovely blue hardcover), you would be a smelly Lex Luthor not to pick this up.
5 Out of 5 Sticks of Kryptonite

The Asylum by John Harwood
There aren't many people writing good ol' fashioned gothic novels these days. I can't even remember the last time I found myself plonked in a decaying old mansion with a cast of menacing folk who may or may not be trying to kill me. And so it was with equal parts foreboding and pleasure that I settled in to John Harwood's latest novel The Asylum. From the outset Harwood heaps on the tension - a young woman wakes up in an asylum with no memory of how she got there and sure of only one thing: she is not who the doctor says she is. The story slowly unravels with all the classic gothic tropes - betrayal, murder, identity theft and, of course, psychotic medical experiments. Depending on how perceptive you are, Harwood will keep you guessing well into the story but after a while even the slowest amongst you will work out what's going on. Once you do, The Asylum becomes a bit of a cliche, not in the least bit helped by its extremely lame ending. Read it for the atmosphere, enjoy it for what it is.
3 Out of 5 Dusty Chandeliers

Red Sky In Morning by Paul Lynch
It was little surprise to learn that, in his other life, Paul Lynch is the Irish Sunday Tribune's chief film critic. His debut novel has the cinematic scope and feel of a great epic despite clocking in at less than two hundred and fifty pages. Told in dense, often difficult prose, Red Sky In Morning is an unforgiving, brutal tale of crime, retribution and the simple unfairness of life. Fans of Cormac McCarthy are sure to revel in its bleakness - John Faller is as good a villain as McCarthy's monster from Blood Meridian, The Judge. His absolute disregard for life in all its forms remains genuinely shocking throughout the novel. As for the hero, Coll Coyle, well you know how it is. A good man, forced to do something terrible, then flee his home in Ireland for the anonymity of America. There he toils, exploited by a callous expatriate to work the land like a dog for next to no pay mistakenly believing that he has left Faller behind. To borrow from a fantastic film, There Will Be Blood. A magnificent piece of storytelling.
4.5 Out Of 5 Headless Horsemen

True Actor by Jacinto Lucas Pires
Some Tarantino-esque posturing (by way of Spike Jonze) from this Portugeuse young gun. Abril, a lowly actor, finds himself cast in the title role of Being Paul Giamatti, an existential adventure that screams either Academy Award or Straight-To-Video. While preparing for this role of a lifetime he is suddenly implicated in the murder of the city's most famous prostitute. Everything begins to collapse around him - his marriage, his career, his country - and Abril must try to work out who exactly he is if he's to clear his name. A cool distraction but perhaps too smart by half.
3 Out Of 5 Reservoir Fictions

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
If ever there was a movie to be made of Strange Bodies it would have to star Marlon Brando. Not Streetcar-era heartthrob Brando. Fat, monstrous Island of Dr. Moreau Jabba the Brando. Of course I realise that would be impossible but that's kind of what this book is about, the quest for immortality. Nicholas Slopen turns up at his former girlfriend's house needing a place to crash for the night. Only problem, Nicholas Slopen has been dead for two years and this guy doesn't in the least bit resemble the one she once dated. He does, however, remember every intimate detail of their time together. By the morning he has disappeared, leaving behind a USB stick. The bulk of the book is, we are told, what was stored on it. Slopen details his engagement by a music industry big wig to authenticate some recently found Samuel Johnson letters. It seems an easy job at first, one that appeals to his vanity. But behind what he figures to be a rather complex fraud lies something far more sinister, an experiment to transfer the internal life of a person into the body of another. The physical vessel may never be immortal but the mind certainly could be. From this intriguing premise, Theroux has crafted a metaphysical thriller with all the bells and whistles. It's even got the Russian mob. I dare say Theroux would have done well to make them kidnap about fifty pages and drop them at the bottom of a river in concrete boots. That would have made for a leaner, more punchy reading experience.
3.5 Out Of 5 Shelled Marys

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Some of you may recall one of my favourite graphic novels of all time, Daytripper by Gabriel Ba. In it, the protagonist gets to live life over and over, seeing how it would have turned out had he died at different points along the way. Here, then, is the long form literary equivalent and, while Kate Atkinson's book is not as dizzyingly brilliant as Daytripper, it is still a moving marvel of narrative construction. Ursula Todd is born in 1910. First time round she is stillborn. Then she lives a few days. Then a while longer. And so on until she manages to reach a ripe old age. Chance (sometimes fortuitous, sometimes malevolent) seems to dictate the outcome. One time she will be hiding in a bomb shelter during the London Blitz, another frolicking around Berlin with her buddy Eva Braun. One time she will marry an awful brute, another a kind gentleman. Her friends and family will die or they will live. Perhaps most impressive is the way Atkinson plays with the decisive life events so the reader gets the feeling that Ursula narrowly escapes the death that claimed her last time round. And yet for all that it has to commend it, Life After Life is merely a gentle pleasure, enjoyable in a country manor kind of way (think a less compelling Atonement) but without a great deal of impact.
3.5 Out Of 5 Piles of Rubble

2013: The "Best Of" Bridesmaids

on Thursday, December 26, 2013
Another bumper year, another night spent shuffling cue cards trying to sort out what would make my Top 10. I wish I could have put these in. Then again, I also wish I could fly. To my own tropical island. With a talking lemur called Alfi. Whatever. If you haven't read these books Alfi will find you and poop in your fridge.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: Anyone who picked up Catton's debut The Rehearsal knew that she was destined for huge things. With The Luminaries she delivered both literally and figuratively - 850 pages of ingeniously constructed New Zealand Wild West storytelling and a Booker Prize to boot. After all the bitching about the prize that's been going on of late, it's nice to remind yourself that sometimes the judges hit on a truly worthy winner. Given the strength of this year's Booker field, that's really saying something.

The Son by Philip Meyer: Nestled somewhere in this hefty tome is 2013's book of the year. Unfortunately the extraordinary tale of Eli McCullough's kidnapping by a Commanche raid party and subsequent initiation into their brutal way of life is padded out by two far lesser interesting tales that run as parallel threads throughout. A salutary lesson for writers and editors alike: learn to recognise the magic.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin: The shortest book ever to be nominated for a Booker Prize, Toibin's masterful act of biblical ventriloquism must be read to be believed (pun only sort of intended). Drawing on traditional narratives, apocrypha and some very smart personal theorising, The Testament of Mary is refreshing, daring and immensely enjoyable.

Bough Down by Karen Green: She doesn't mention his name even once, but Green's meditation on the death of her husband David Foster Wallace and her attempts to come to terms with it through art is nothing short of breathtaking. Don't dare call it a misery memoir; Bough Down is life affirming art in its own right.

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran: Think what you want of Australia's enfant terrible (though not quite the enfant anymore), but he sure has a knack for finding a great story. Moreover, he is willing to risk his life to become part of it. Unsurprisingly, Murder In Mississippi reads like a classic Safran series put to the page - fast, funny, sharp and socially important. Don't let the nebbishe whimsy fool you.

The Making Of by Brecht Evens: It's not that hard to take the piss out of the literary world. Let's face it - we're all a bunch of wankers. But this extremely entertaining graphic novel managed to nail the absurdity of it all in a way I haven't seen since Martin Amis's The Information. Gorgeously drawn and hilariously spun this was not only the best graphic novel I read all year but one of the best books period.

A Few Flower Girls: Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich, The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy, Bruno Kramzer by AS Patric, Saving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy.

2013: The Shelf Of Shame

on Monday, December 23, 2013
Strap on your gumboots and wade with me into the muck. It's time to unblock this year's literary toilet.

Do you ever get the feeling that reviewers are just trolling us? These three books certainly made me think so:

All That Is - James Salter: Once upon a time this really old guy wrote a reasonably interesting book about a returned soldier's very ordinary post-war life. Everyone was so amazed that he could manoeuvre a pen in his arthritic fingers that they hailed it as a masterpiece. It wasn't. And they all lived deluded ever after.

Tenth of December - George Saunders: Is there a bigger darling of the literary set right now than George Saunders? The guy can fart in a jar and people will flock from every corner of the earth to take a whiff. Don't believe me? Read Tenth of December. A couple of great stories but, otherwise, a lot of gas.

The Ocean At the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman: Kudos to Amanda Palmer. Having killed her husband in some vampyric ritual, she has managed to convince the world that the zombie-like husk with the Eraserhead hairdo that she trots out in public from time to time is the greatly loved fantasist and comic book legend. That's really the only way I can explain this humdrum, cliched fable. As for its critical reception? Witch! Witch! Burn her at the stake!

We Litnerds are an excitable bunch. Promise us something new from someone we love and you'll have us selling our mums to get our hands on a copy. I hereby apologise to my mum for trading her for the following:

The Quarry - Iain Banks. When an author you once loved dies just before the release of his final book, you hope against hope that it will be a fitting swansong. The Quarry came with all kinds of 'return to form' buzz. To a certain extent it was justified. The Quarry was a return to the disappointing form that had plagued Banks since 1995's Complicity. At least I'll always have The Bridge.

TransAtlantic - Colum McCann. Having written a true modern masterpiece with Let The Great World Spin, it seems McCann tried to recreate the same magic using a similar formula (disparate narrative strings flying out in all directions before coming together to reveal a spectacular tapestry). Unfortunately, TransAtlantic never really took flight. Without the passion, anger, wonder or whimsy of his previous work, it just felt like McCann was going through the motions. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get into it.

Born Weird - Andrew Kaufman. Died disappointed.

I want to dig up Vladimir Nabokov, hand him to Amanda Palmer for reanimation, and set his flesh eating zombie on anyone who dared compare Alissa Nutting's truly awful novel Tampa to Lolita. He can start by ripping the brains out of the buzz-makers who promised us the most daring story written in years. Then he can move on to the reviewers who hailed Nutting's ability to get into the mind of Celeste, the young, female predator telling this crock of a story. Next up the bloggers, podcasters... hell, it's Nabokov. He can eat whoever the fuck he likes. How this book got serious traction absolutely astonishes me. The concept is not original - it was done before (and far better) by both Eleanor Catton and Zoe Heller. Nor is it daring or insightful. Rather, Tampa is cheap and tawdry erotic fan fiction, with plot holes so big you could fit an entire football field of teenage penises through it. Now would someone please pass me a shovel?

2013: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Saturday, December 21, 2013
And so another year is drawing to an end which, as usual, has meant I've been spending the last few days frantically cramming in as many books as possible before compiling my Top 10. Cramageddon was a flop in November, but right now it's going gangbusters. So, once again, here I am buying time with the best of everything that wasn't a book published in 2013.

Every couple of years I stumble across a new writer who so captures my reading heart that I feel compelled to robe up, spend a few weeks in the desert then come back and proselytise about them from a milk carton on every street corner I can possibly find. So listen up, converts-in-waiting. I'm here to share the word of Goncalo G. Tavares. Whether you start with the experimental whimsy of The Neighbourhood, the meta noir of Jerusalem, the cold comeuppance of Learning To Pray In The Age of Technique or the ingenious absurdity of Joseph Walser's Machine, I can almost guarantee that you'll heed the calling. Not since Jesse Ball have I found an author who so seamlessly blends serious literary depth, intellectual gymnastics and pure narrative fun.
Honourable Mentions: David Vogel and Pascal Garnier


Mr. Theodore Mundstock - Ladislav Fuks (1963): An old Czech Jew learns what's in store for the those being deported east so turns his apartment into a concentration camp to help acclimatise. A profoundly disturbing comic masterpiece.

Joseph Walser's Machine - Goncalo M. Tavares (2004): It was hard to choose between Tavares's four books available in English but there's something about Joseph Walser's Machine that manages to lift it ever so slightly above the rest. A cog-in-the-machine everyman rebels against his daily routine with some rather unsettling results.

Dolly City - Orly Castel-Bloom (1991): Wildly imaginative riff on the peace process told via a batshit crazy doctor trying to immunise her baby (one she stole, mind you) against every imaginable illness. Just extraordinary.

The A26 - Pascal Garnier (1999): Crime fiction doesn't get better than this masterpiece of amorality. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Bernard finds himself free from society's shackles. What follows can only be described as a rampage of depravity.

Viennese Romance - David Vogel (1937): Echoes of Hermann Ungar's brilliant novel The Maimed in this story of a young man who rents a room in a house only to be crushed by the landlady's amorous obsession.

Special Mentions: I have deliberately chosen not to include recent rereads but it would be wrong not to give mad props to Cats Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Trieste by Dasa Drndic, The Complete MAUS by Art Speigleman and Life With A Star by Jiri Weil.

Nothing new here. Still loving Michael Silverblat's KCRW Bookworm, Judge John Hodgman and BBC's A Good Read.

2013 will go down as a great year in music. Sure, there were some stinkers from Avenged Sevenfold, Black Flag and Elvis Costello. There were also way too many decent-but-unremarkable comeback albums from the likes of Black Sabbath, AFI, David Bowie, Manic Street Preachers, Placebo and The Dismemberment Plan (though Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer is one of my favourite songs of the year). But other than those little hiccups, this really was a stellar year... so, stellar that I've really struggled to distill a top 10. Heck, I've even had to jettison albums I really liked by Future of the Left, Dog Party, Vampire Weekend, Old Man Markley and Franz Ferdinand. Oh well. Time to play fast and loose with the definition of the word "ten" again. Here's all 13 albums of my Top 10 of 2013:

13. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You by Neko Case: Poetic, complex and completely mesmerising. The title has already taken up my allotted words for this entry.

12. Perhaps You'll Deliver This Judgement With Greater Fear Than I Receive It by Crusades: If The Misfits were born into a world of melodic hardcore, they'd sound an awful lot like Crusades. But this isn't some lame schlock horror fest. Crusades mean serious business with their politically-charged, satanist-tinged sonic barrage.

11. The Hands That Thieve by Streetlight Manifesto: Ok, the songs are too long but there's no denying the catchy brilliance of SM's long-awaited return. Speedy ska punk joy.

10. Safety Net by Mad Choice. Blink and you'll miss this super fast skate punk punch in the face. A glorious throwback to the early days of the movement.

9. Infestissumam by Ghost: Picture, if you will, Pete Steele of Type O Negative in a sacrificial orgy with the monks from Enigma. Nine months later, my clear biological ignorance notwithstanding, this is what you'd get.

8. Adult Film by Tim Kasher: By now you know what to expect from the strange bird that is Cursive's frontman. What you probably don't expect is for it to still be this bloody good. Probably the best thing he's done since Happy Hollow.

7. Role Model by Bodyjar: Bands wanting to stage a comeback, take note. This is how it's done. Australian 90s punk legends Bodyjar stormed back with a reminder of everything that made them so great. Forty-year-old men in board shorts? Bring it on!

6. Hungry Ghost by Violent Soho. Brisbane is the new Seattle if this incredibly vibrant grunge record is anything to go by. In under an hour they manage to completely reinvigorate a genre that was ended, quite literally, with a bullet.

5. Anthems by Pure Love: I was never a great Gallows fan, but Frank Carter shows he can rock like few others with this hook laden gem. Brimming with passion and purpose, it is great song after great song after great song. As for Gallows, well, if you'll pardon the pun, he seems to have left them hanging.

4. IV by The Bronx: RAAWWWWK. The Bronx very seldom disappoint but even I wasn't expecting something this awesome. From the outset, IV grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go til long after the music has ended.

3. FIDLAR by FIDLAR: It took seeing them live for me to be sucked into the world of FIDLAR but, once I was there, there was no going back. Surfy garage punk at its most fun and urgent. And while it might not have come from the best song on the album (that goes to No Waves), was there a better chant this year than "I drink cheap beer. So what? Fuck you!"?

2. Unkind by After The Fall. The problem with writing a perfect album so early in your career is that you risk spending the rest of your days chasing your tail. Such was the plight of After The Fall and their sophomore record Fort Orange. After a disappointing EP and album ATF have not only caught up with their tail but wholeheartedly chomped it off with this perfect marriage of ferocity, heart and melody.

1. True North by Bad Religion: I had all but given up on Bad Religion. Sure, I've enjoyed the odd song here and there off their last few records but, by all indication, they had become old men going through the motions, a sad shell of the legends that gave us No Control and Suffer. Seeing them live last year only served to confirm my fears. Well, blow me over with half an hour of punk rock perfection. I should be whipped with nettles for ever doubting. True North is the sound of a band rediscovering what they first set out to do as teenagers. Almost eleven months after it was released it remains urgent, intelligent, and catchy as hell. It also remains my album of the year. Let's just not mention the godawful Christmas Songs record they recently pooped on our heads.

2013 was also the year I finally got out and started seeing live music again. There were quite a few great shows but three stood out.

FIDLAR at The Corner Hotel. I didn't really know the band. I only went because a friend had a spare ticket. Holy shit. It was a transformative experience. As I tried to hoist my jaw from the beer stained carpet I came to know what it must have felt like to watch Nirvana in their early Bleach days.

Good Riddance/ A Wilhelm Scream/ The Flatliners at The East Bunswick Club. To have only seen the reformed Good Riddance would have made my year. But to see two other great bands... well that was just delicious, delicious icing.

Useless ID/ The Decline at The Workers Club. It was a cold, miserable Melbourne night but you wouldn't have known it at The Worker's Club. First up, a couple of awesome sets from local supports Declaration and Up And Atom. Then Perth punk superheroes The Decline tore the room a new one. And, to top it off, Israeli pita punkers Useless ID reminded us all what we'd been missing since they last toured here seven years ago. One of the best nights out I had all year.

2013: A Short List of Lists

on Thursday, December 12, 2013
Calm down 2014. No need to show off just yet. Yes, yes. We all know you are bringing us tasty delights from E. L. Doctorow, Jesse Ball and Robert Coover but for know stop your silly cartwheels and let 2013 have its last gasp of stardom. Holy crap. I'm talking to a concept. It really must be December. Ok, before I go completely nuts here's the rundown of how it's going to play out:

Saturday December 21: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

Monday December 23: The Shelf of Shame

Thursday December 26: The Best of Bridesmaids

Sunday December 29: The Final Countdown

Tuesday December 31: Book Of The Year

Long time Bookworms will note my lack of a New Year's Aspiration scorecard this time round. Well, I only made one: To review every book I read. And God knows how but I did it. Of the many things I could say, I'll leave it at this: What the hell was I thinking???

Microviews Vol. 46: First Cab Outta Hipsterville (Brooklyn Is Burning)

on Tuesday, December 10, 2013
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
This is not a review. It's an intervention. It has come to my attention that all you vegan, tapas eating, latte licking hipsters in the hermetically sealed borough of Brooklyn think this book nails life. Newsflash. Your life, maybe... and that's why we need to talk. Granted, there's a certain charm in this tale of a slightly less neurotic Woody Allenesque schmuck stapling his penis to various popular installation pieces (if only that were literal!). And yeah, there are some shrewd observations about modern dating and romance. Hell, there's also some flashy writing on show, some cutely humorous set pieces. But Nate Piven is a total douche. His friends are douches. Their lives are boring, unless you think navel gazing (peppered with pettily jealous asides) is some high octane sport. And before you get all up in my face about how this is brilliant satire and I just don't get it... Hop on a train and get the fuck out of Brooklyn. It's killing you.
3 Out Of 5 Ironic Beards

Carnival by Rawi Hage
Rawi Hage is the best author I've never raved about. Strange, profound yet joyously readable, you can't help but love everything he does. Carnival is probably his weirdest book to date. It's just plain nuts. More so, it is a sensation. There isn't a plot, as such. It's a guy, Fly, who drives a taxi around some unidentified city during their big, month long carnival. He picks up various customers, gets glimpses into their mostly fucked up lives - crims, prostitutes, clowns, revolutionaries, you name it. You also get glimpses into Fly's life; his childhood in the circus, his strange friendships and even stranger relationships. As the carnival gets into full swing things become increasingly chaotic and disjointed. There are wonders aplenty, a murder, even moments of quiet contemplation. Whatever. Don't worry about the story. It's all about the thrill of the ride. Just brilliant.
4.5 Out of 5 Rigged Meters

Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston
Whenever I meet a nurse or nursing student I can't help but ask whether they ever dabble in a bit of manual disimpaction. Yeah, I know it's childish and disrespectful but, well, so am I. Of course I've never given much thought to the procedure itself until now when, about a third of the way through Gabriel Weston's sophomore effort, beleaguered OBGYN abortion specialist Dr. Nancy recounts her early days in the profession. Let's just say, if you are squeamish, this ain't the book for you. Weston, herself a doctor, goes into the finest detail of some pretty intimate medical procedures. The physical revulsion you may or may not feel is, however, a secondary consideration. This book is about abortion and it is likely to be troubling for people on both sides of the debate. Perhaps it is to Weston's credit that she never really picks a side - it is clear that Nancy feels abortion is a right and a necessity, but her freezing up and almost killing a patient thanks to a crisis of faith/confidence/ability (pretty much the central event of the novel) suggests a certain sympathy for the other view. Personally, I found this moral ambiguity troubling rather than brave or challenging. It's almost as if Weston was falling back on the saying from which her title might be drawn: It's dirty work but someone's got to do it. Hmmm... I don't expect some sort of proselytising from a novel dealing with this important a topic but a greater degree of moral courage wouldn't have gone astray.
2.5 Out of 5 Rubber Gloves

Dashenka or The Life of a Puppy by Karel Capek
Leaving aside Kafka who, it must be said, transcends nationality, Karel Capek is my favourite Czech writer. His masterpiece, War With The Newts, is one of the smartest, most terrifying, yet hilariously playful books ever written. Over the years I've pretty much exhausted his ouevre, so I was rather excited to find this during one of my random internet author searches. While it is by no means a major work, Dashenka is a sweet kids' book about the first few months of a puppy's life. It is divided into three parts. The first is a descriptive narrative to which anyone who has raised a puppy will relate. The frustrations, the joys. Next comes a strange little cycle of tales (sorry) that Capek concocts as bedtime stories for the dog. It's sly and whimsical - using a dog in the same way we invent stories with a child hero for our kids. Last, there's a series of photos that Capek took of the real Dashenka as she grew. Given this first came out in 1933, it's no small feat (again, sorry). Dashenka belongs with the peculiar subset of pet literature by great authors - Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, Lessing's Cat Tales, Ackerley's My Dog Tulip - that will hardly go down as their greatest works but still manage to stand on their own as charming reads for completists and animal lovers alike. Man, I've softened since I got Louie.
3.5 Out of 5 Training Pads

The Machine by James Smythe
JG Ballard and (early) Iain Banks must be looking down at James Smythe from wherever they are with some serious paternal pride. Three books in and the young Englishman has confidently taken the disturbing speculative fiction baton and run with it. Indeed, The Machine is a typically Banksian near future (or possible alternate present) mindfuck that will be welcomed by anyone who bid the great Scotsman farewell long before he died. It is, but for a few very minor characters, a two person show. Vic McAdams went off to war and was nearly killed by an IED. Brought back to England, he was plagued by PTSD and, after some violent episodes his memory was saved to a hard drive then wiped clean. Years pass and his wife becomes dissatisfied with the husk of a man lying in some hospital so she decides to bring him back home and restore what was taken away. Trawling the internet, she finds one of the memory machines on the black market (an old model of course) and sets it up in the spare room. Needless to say, the the rebooted Vic might not be all she had hoped for. The Machine is a fascinating exploration of what makes us who we are, asking some pretty big questions in classic speculative style. Are we the sum of our experiences and memories or is there something more? Would a blank canvas hardwired with our "minds" turn out just the way we did? Smythe's answers are profoundly disturbing. And yet the book doesn't quite work. It's as if he hasn't yet struck the depth of heart that made Ballard or early Banks so earth shatteringly good. Let's just say, then, that The Machine is a cerebral triumph of the most unsettling kind. Maybe that's the point.
3.5 Out Of 5 Hacked HALs

Microviews Vol. 45: Hey Maw, I Drewed Me A Pitcha

on Thursday, December 5, 2013
The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman
I couldn't think of anything new to say about it so I drew you a picture:

5 Out of 5 Charcoal Fences

Let Him Go by Larry Watson
First things first. Hillbillies creep me the fuck out. Sure, there's that thin veneer of civility, but scratch too hard against the surface and you're likely to open the gates to hell. Cue the banjo music. Let Him Go is a thoroughly disturbing return to form for Montana 1948 author Watson. George and Margaret, a frankly deluded couple, set off to convince their daughter-in-law Lorna to leave her new family and return to them. They like the girl but, more importantly, she has little Jimmy, their grandson and only living reminder of their dead boy. Pretty soon love and longing give way to desperation and Margaret (George is really only along for the ride) finds herself willing go to any length to get Jimmy back. Unfortunately, Lorna's new clan, the Weboys, will go to much greater lengths to keep him. It is a Hatfield versus McCoy tinderbox and holy stuck pigs does it explode. Margaret's grief is little match for the Weboys' fury as the novel builds to its cataclysmic end. It's a hell of a crazy ride, but one with a very serious moral message.
3.5 Out of 5 Burning Tumbleweeds

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith
For all the hooplah that's followed Zadie Smith since her debut, I've only ever been able to take her in small doses. White Teeth was pretty good in parts. I'll give her a leave pass for The Autograph Man. And, NW, well... it was kind of more White Teeth. Only On Beauty really spoke to me; it's as good a campus novel as has been written in the last two decades. Now comes The Embassy of Cambodia, essentially a short story bound quite beautifully and palmed off as an entire book. The story is touching and simple - Fatou works for a rich Pakistani family near the Cambodian embassy in Willesden. Having escaped from the Ivory Coast with dreams of freedom she is living out her days as a low wage slave, given only a few hours to experience the world outside. She uses the family's passes at the local pool, meets a missionary, falls in love. These moments of light radiate with the kind of joy that almost eclipses her otherwise heartbreaking existence. Fatou might be invisible, but Smith bestows her with dignity, warmth and humanity. An urgent, beautiful little book.
3.5 Out of 5 Shuttlecocks

The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg
When trawling through the major religious texts a couple of years ago, I was particularly struck by the similarities between the various creation myths. For all the divisiveness in their operationalisation, religious stories seemed to share an awful lot of material. In this gorgeous graphic novel, Isabel Greenberg posits a cool theory of a "first draft" of humankind, a civilisation that predates all our known history and sets the scene for everything that has followed. Drawing heavily from the Old Testament but with many a nod to the other texts, she weaves a complex, subtle, vibrant tale that is, at its essence, a profound meditation on the nature of storytelling itself. Stories pile upon one another, others shoot out from the cracks, some are crushed or silenced. But, above all, stories create, save and give meaning to our lives. It's been a long time since I've had the privilege of reading such a good old fashioned fable as this.
4.5 Out of 5 Little Bangs

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses by Lucy Corin
This is one sexy looking book! The design, the title, the concept. Kudos to McSweeneys and Lucy Corin, you won me over before I even started. So what then to make of the contents? There is no denying Corin's abundant talent. The cycle of one hundred stories that make up the greater part of this book is a dazzling display of imagination; interpretations one and all of the very concept of the apocalypse. Some are personal (end of a relationship, end of someone's individual world), others are worldwide cataclysms (you know, in the biblical sense). Some are light and flippant while others will drag you into their murky depths. Corin is clearly comfortable wherever she points her pen. A hundred stories, however, is a lot to take in and, while I enjoyed a good many of them, the cycle began to feel like a chore. It is an exhaustive exercise, but it is also exhausting. That said, perseverance pays. The final salvo is, to my mind, probably the best. Twenty five stories in which Corin explores the aftermath of the apocalypse. It's a grim picture. I suspect it's also accurate.
3.5 Out Of 5 Horsemen