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!