2020 In Review: And The Winner Is....

on Thursday, December 31, 2020
Before you come at me with your pitchforks and torches, let me preface what I'm doing here with a couple of caveats. Firstly, it's 2020 and, frankly, given what we've all been through, I figure anything goes. There are no rules anymore. Except maybe stay the F at home or, if you have to go out, keep two metres apart and wear a friggin' mask. Seriously, it works. Other than that, it's a free for all. Secondly, as you will see, time played some weird tricks on me with what books I chose as the winners. Yeah, yeah. There are two. But one of the books I read as an Advanced Reading Copy in 2019 and mentioned it in passing here on the blog this time last year. The other, while published already in the UK, won't be out in Australia until March 2021. So don't @ me. I love these books and I stopped caring about time somewhere around April. Enough waffling.

Without further ado, I am pleased to say that my Bait for Bookworms Book of the Year is, for the first time ever, a tie.


I was first sucked in by the jacket design. Not the one you see here, but the one gracing the ARC. Having seen it floating about social media, I became oddly obsessed, despite knowing nothing about the book itself. In a strange serendipitous twist, Katharina from Maclehose was visiting Melbourne late last year and brought a copy with her. She had no idea I'd been coveting it for months, and handed it over, assuring me I'd love it. Talk about an understatement! The Slaughterman’s Daughter was the delightful throwback to the golden era of Yiddish storytelling that I didn't know I needed. An exuberant, joyous romp set in the Pale of Settlement during the time of the last Tsar, it tips its crisped streimel to the likes of Sholem Aleichem, IL Peretz and Mendele Mocher Sforim, yet maintains its own identity as a thoroughly modern and relevant work of literature. The story is bonkers, yet beautiful, a thrilling adventure and thoughtful treatment of issues that transcend time. Fanny Kesimann, the eponymous daughter of the local kosher slaughterman, is Hell-bent on freeing her sister from her status as an agunah (chained wife). Roping in the local eccentric, Fanny sets off on a madcap quest to hunt down her sister’s wayward husband only to fall foul of the Tsar’s secret police when she kills a gang of brigands who try to rob her. It’s hilarious and frenetic and everything I could have wished for to escape these difficult pandemic-drenched times. Oh, and for the pedants out there, I read it again in March and loved it even more.

Long-time readers of this blog, if there are any, might recall my fawning adulation for Philippe Claudel's Brodeck's Report. When it comes to novels about the collective complicity and guilt of civilians in World War Two, there is none better. Ten years to the day since I named it my favourite book of 2010, Claudel finds his way back to the top of my list with the absolutely astonishing Dog Island. Told in the form of a fable, the novel opens with three bodies washing ashore on the beach of the titular island, somehwere in the Mediterranean. Rather than investigate, the locals move quickly to toss the bodies into the island's smouldering volcano and go on with their lives. However, much like in Poe's Telltale Heart, dastardly secrets have a way of seeping out. It is the local teacher, an outsider, who begins to shake the tree. Those harbouring guilt are quick to snap back, accusing him of the most terrible crimes. When a stranger appears in town, apparently to prosecute the teacher's case, things take a turn for the decidely strange. I'm being intentionally oblique here. To give too much away would spoil the cataclysmic impact of what Claudel achieves through this story. Dog Island is literature as moral compass, a savage indictment on the state of our response to contemporary humanitarian crises. Like Brodeck, it explores complicity and the lengths we might to go to assuage our guilt for opportunistic depradations. In a world where people to continue to flee persecution and violence, where they risk their lives and those of their families to reach safe harbour, where they fall victim to callous smugglers or indifferent governments, Dog Island is an absolutely essential read.

And so ends another year. No matter hor you fared in 2020, I wish you all a better 2021, with health, happiness and great reading. I know I say it every year, but I plan to be back here more frequently. Fingers crossed another global catastrophe doesn't put paid to that plan!


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