2015: And The Winner Is...

on Thursday, December 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

See my original review of BRWC here.

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

2015: The Year of Bricks and Mortar

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

Books I Can't Wait To Read in 2016

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

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

2015: The Final Countdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015: Best of Bridesmaids

on Saturday, December 26, 2015
2015 was a pretty strange year in literature. First up, it was the year of the BIG book. Tomes a plenty lined the shelves of bookstores everywhere and, I'm glad to say, readers seemed to snap them up. Four I really wanted to read but missed out on were Garth Risk Hallberg's City On Fire, William T. Vollman's The Dying Grass, Orhan Pamuk's A Strangeness in My Mind and the newly translated Hungarian classic Captivity by Gyorgy Spiro. Secondly there were lots of fair to middling books - the type of novels that were pleasurable to read but really made no lasting impression. I could rattle off a whole list of them but, well, they don't seem worth mentioning. Then there were the few that got massive raves but I simply couldn't get around to reading. And so I suppose I owe them some kind of golf clap anyway: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Whites by Richard Price, Beauty Is A Wound by Eka Kurniawan and The Green Road by Anne Enright. I will get to you eventually. Then I'll clap louder. Without white cotton gloves.

Which leaves me with the 60-odd books (I'm still going, year's not over yet) that I did read that were published in 2015 (out of a total 120 something read altogether). I had a tough time picking out a Top 10 and I'm still deciding on their ultimate order. Luckily I still have a few days up my sleeve. These, however, are the books that didn't quite make it but were still stupendously excellent and, at the risk of severe paper cuts, deserve a big literary high five:

The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas. I've been waiting years for Vila-Matas to produce something as delightfully playful as the extraordinary Montano's Malady and, five or so books later (though to be fair there is a time quake between when his books were written and the order in which they are being translated), here it is. An author is invited to an obscure art festival where he is expected to sit at a table in a Chinese restaurant and write in view of whoever wants to watch. Thoroughly confused by his assignment he decides to dedicate his time to constructing his Lecture To Nobody, which he intends to deliver to an empty theatre at the end of his sojourn. Crazy meta-riffage on avant garde art through the prism of McGuffins makes for one of the most challenging and enjoyable reads of the year. Vila-Matas rivals Joseph Heller for the number of ways he can play with a single concept. Read if you dare.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. I still think Obioma should have won the Booker Prize for this wonderful novel about four brothers in Nigeria caught up in the political disintegration of their country. Part morality tale, part elegy for saner times, its weaving together of traditional mythology with brutal reality, all through the eyes of a child, makes for a wholly original, urgent read. Forget the comparisons with Chinua Achebe. Obioma has a voice of his own and has marked out an important, new space for himself on the world stage.

The Year of The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. Had it not been nominated for the Booker Prize I would never have picked up this novel of the subcontinental immigrant experience in England. Well, I'm very glad it did. As I said in my review, Sahota picks off the scab of wilful blindness to reveal a heartbreaking side of contemporary British society through the lives of four young Indians just trying to find their feet. Faced with rampant exploitation, prostitution, cruelty and poverty, the characters shine through, never giving up their beautiful sense of hope for a brighter tomorrow. A very tough read but ultimately uplifting and life-affirming.

Between the Word and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The only non-fiction book to have made my list, Coates's fierce polemic on race and justice is as prescient a book as any I have read. Written as a letter to his son, it perfectly captures what it means to be a black man in America in 2015. Forget the political spin-makers, this is the most genuine State of The Union Address you're likely to read. And for those of us who didn't live through the civil rights movement, it's as close as we'll ever get to our own "I Have A Dream" moment. Except here it is "I Am Living a Nightmare". More than required reading, I'd say it should be mandatory. Extraordinary.

Honourable Mentions

The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov. Gogol meets Babel meets Terry Pratchett in this literary romp that kind of resembles an episode of Might Power Rangers. The works of a crappy communist hack take on biblical proportions in post-Cold War Russia.

The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky. A compassionate and wise novel that speaks to the contemporary Israeli condition. Fear of terror (ultimately realised), the frustrations of Israeli society and Jewish guilt personified (by a neurotic ghost, no less).

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. Elusive, dark and surreal this short book is The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime for grownups. A multi-voiced (one of which is a raven) fable/prose poem that tears at the fibre of your soul.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison. Even a minor work by Morrison is a cause for celebration and this brief novel is no exception. Here she turns her infinite wisdom and compassion to the questions of race and identity as moulded (and misshapen) by misguided parenting.

2015: The Shelf of Shame

on Tuesday, December 22, 2015
And now for the next instalment in my very own How To Lose Friends and Alienate People: Books that were noteworthy for all the wrong reasons. Feel free to cross me off your Christmas lists.

The Most Overrated Book of 2015
Seriously you'd have thought it was one of the great moments in world history. Believe the hype and the last 3000 years went something like this: The discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel, Moses, Jesus, man walks on the moon, Go Set A Watchman. Ok, so we had collectively given up hope on ever reading another word from Harper Lee but 2015 saw us finally get our hands on her apprentice novel, a sequel of sorts, albeit written before To Kill A Mockingbird. Those expecting something of same quality need only have looked to the rather shady story behind its publication for a dose of expectation management. Alas, the world went apoplectic and forgave the book's every failing. Critics scrambled to find redeeming features in a work that ought not ever have seen the light of day. Which isn't to say it was crap - it was an interesting glimpse into the making of a perfect novelist - but it certainly wasn't the Third Testament either. Also, those who had named their children Atticus were given pause to rethink their decision. Word has it the name will make a resurgence in trailer parks across the midwest in 2016.

Dishonourable Mentions
I'm a massive fan of Andrew O'Hagan but his generally well-reviewed (and Booker longlisted) novel, The Illuminations, left me cold. A plodding story with an unlikely denouement, it did little for the world of war literature and even less for me. Critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on The Sellout by Paul Beatty but I struggled to find my way into its web. There were some hilarious set pieces (pretty much every time the narrator talked about his father) and the general premise of a black man trying to reclaim his hometown by re-instituting segregation and slavery was as funny as it was nuts but I'm not convinced the book actually worked as well as most people would have you believe. Or maybe I just didn't get it. That was certainly the case for The Sympathiser by Viet Thanh Nguyen, about a double (or triple) agent who comes to America just after the Vietnam War, gets involved in Hollywood and the odd political assassination then ends up under arrest in his homeland, enduring all manner of tortures for insufficiently helping the cause. A dense, beautifully written novel (seriously, the prose is stunning) with which I simply did not connect. And, of course, I can't go without giving a nod in the direction of Marlon James's Booker prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. Perfectly executed Jamaican Patois, complex plot lines shooting out in every direction, a polyphony of engaging voices... much like the works of David Foster Wallace I was in awe of it while not really getting or liking it.

The Biggest Disappointment of 2015
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. When word leaked out last year that there was a new Ishiguro on the horizon, his first since the magnificent Never Let Me Go, I was about as excited as a grumpy book nerd gets. That this literary polymath would be venturing into the world of fantasy had me perplexed but hey, it's Ishiguro, the sane man's Georges Perec, what could possibly go wrong? Well skewer me with a dragon's tooth, I trudged through The Buried Giant with the courage and determination of Bilbo Baggins and for what? A bodyslam by Fezzik? A kneecapping with the Sword of Shanarra? Heck, the only ring I found was a boring (sorry). Yep. Despite some lovely moments, a bit of delicious intertextual play and a couple of charming characters The Buried Giant was a massive letdown. Slay me now you dragons of literature.

Dishonourable Mentions
Occasional flashes of the utter brilliance that was Milan Kundera in his prime could not mask the sad fact that his offering for this year was very aptly titled The Festival of Insignificance. Meanwhile, David Vann seemed to be treading water with his latest work, Aquarium. Alaska's answer to Cormac McCarthy, his attempt to venture into something a bit more mainstream felt heavy handed and unfocused. Patti Smith wowed me with Just Kids but her follow-up, M Train, packed little of the emotional punch of its predecessor despite some stunning prose. Smith is a an artist in the truest sense and I'll always find something to like in whatever she does but riffs on the corner coffee shop and Frida Kahlo's bed aren't a patch on the New York she created with Robert Mapplethorpe.

2015: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Friday, December 18, 2015
With less than a fortnight to go before we celebrate another another full swing around the sun, I yet again find myself ripping through the "it" books of 2015 in the desperate hope of not omitting anything of particular worth from my list. Yep, two weeks, ten books to go. Wish me luck. In the meantime let the orgy of counting begin. As usual I'm starting off with my odd socks, so dust off your abacuses (or is that abaci?) and open the washing machine door.


Stoner by John Williams. The first book I read and probably still one of the best, Stoner is an exercise in finely honed literary perfection. The story of an ordinary man as he stumbles haplessly through life, it whisks you gently through time, never making obvious its ultimate hatchet job on your heart. As I said in my review, it is quite possibly the greatest under-appreciated classic of all time.

The Notebook by Agota Kristoff. If brutality, desperation and the fluidity of identity are your kind of thing then you will not find it better executed than in Kristoff's incredible novel. Part one of a very strong trilogy, it tells of twin boys growing up in rural Hungary during a war (presumably WW2), doing all that is necessary - debasement be damned - to survive. With prose that is simple, clean and precise, Kristoff will utterly destroy your faith in humanity while making you laugh and recoil in equal measures. For what it's worth, I also recommend you persevere with the other two books. The second is a slight lull but it sets up for an absolutely crushing finale that will have you questioning everything you've read. Clearly Kristoff became more experimental with time and the work as a whole is all the better for it.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Speaking of bleak, try this one on for size. As I said in my review, it's kind of like a more realistic The Road without the moments of light. Set during a brutal Nordic winter, it tells of a young family setting off east in search of food. Spoiler alert (though not particularly surprising): they all die horrible deaths. Unrelenting cruelty in the face of dire circumstances that somehow freeze together to make a sculpture of unimaginable beauty.

Here by Richard Macguire. One of the few graphic novels I read this year, Here is a truly innovative, moving and wonderful addition to the genre. The story of a single place, Macguire shifts across time, interposing characters that we grow to love over, against and with one another. Incandescent reading.


Here's some books I bought for the pictures, so to speak...


I swore to myself that I wouldn't repeat last year's woeful effort to distill my favourite albums to a top 10 (You may recall I ended up with 21). Well, I'm glad to say that, in some sense, I have succeeded. This time I have 24. At the risk of offending the masses, I found it easy to discard overhyped bombs like Faith No More, Refused and The Libertines (Sacred Cows 0, Profane Slaughterer 3). And other heavy hitters like Iron Maiden, Poison Idea and Killing Joke were really good but not oh-my-God-this-has-to-go-in-my-end-of-year-list good. Which leaves me with these:

24. Marilyn Manson - The Pale Emperor
23. Hextalls - Play With Heart
22. Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes - Blossom
21. Matt Skiba - KUTS
20. Anti-Flag - American Spring
19. Ben Lee - Love Is The Great Rebellion
18. Brothers Inc. - Cut Out The Middleman
17. Tartar Control - We Forgive You
16. The Max Levine Ensemble - Backlash, Baby!
15. War On Women - War On Women
14. Frank Turner - Positive Songs For Negative People
13. Puscifer - Money Shot
12. Amercian Fangs - Dirty Legs
11. Therapy - Disquiet

And my absolute faves...

10. Versus The World - Homesick/Roadsick. These guys always seem to draw the short straw when it comes to garnering attention in the melodic punk world but this record was a collection of great songs played with heart and passion. Great live show too.

9. Leftover Crack - Constructs of State. It's been a whole bunch of years since LOC released their much loved sophomore album Fuck World Trade. I'll commit crack rocksteady heresy here and say I think that album is massively overrated. Also, Scott Sturgeon is a total dickwad. I'll always remember fondly the time he played in Australia and kicked a fan in the face (not to be confused with Fat Mike's moment of unglory) only to be decked by another fan who I later bought a beer in honour of his noble effort. Still, Constructs of State is an amazing return to form. Furious, fun and packed with awesome guests, it has everything worth loving about the genre. With one album Sturgeon redeemed himself in my eyes. Well, artistically at least.

8. Millencolin - True Brew. Another band who came back better that when they left, this was the most fun pop punk record of the year. With his signature catchy melodies and mostly dumbass lyrics, Nikola Sarcevic proves that age doesn't necessarily weary us. I loved this way more than I should have.

7. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell. I've been waiting years for Stevens to release a worthy followup to the astoundingly beautiful Illinoise and by God he finally did it. Gentle, moving and deep, Carrie and Lowell is Sufjan at his very best, paying heartfelt homage to his parents. There may not be a John Wayne Gacy Jnr on it, but there are plenty of beautiful moments to elevate your soul.

6. NOFX and Friends - Home Street Home. A punk rock musical? Yeah, I was skeptical. Even in the hands of a master like Fat Mike, even with the help of Avenue Q's Jeff Marx, there was every chance it would suck. Instead we got a brilliantly conceived, hilarious and heartbreaking story of abuse, addiction and redemption brought to life by a great cast of punk rock champions. It also provided one of the year's funniest moments: listening to my mum hum along to the filth that is Let's Get Hurt without realising quite what it was she was singing.

5. Carl Barat and the Jackals - Let It Reign. While I anxiously awaited the ultimate disappointment of another Libertines album, the guy that isn't Pete Doherty slipped out one of the best albums of the year. Brash, loose and ballsy Let It Reign has everything I loved about Up The Bracket with an added scoop of maturity that I wasn't expecting at all. You can stop pretending to like The Libertines's new album now.

4. Desaparicidos - Payola. So many bands made their comeback albums this year. So many bands disappointed. And while Connor Oberst has hardly kept quiet since releasing the extraordinary first Desapericidos album in 2002, he hasn't done anything remotely as good. And that goes for all 473 Bright Eyes albums. Payola is about a good a record as I could have hoped for. Amazing song after amazing song.

3. Jeff Rosenstock - We Cool? Jangly punk geek throws together a killer set of snotty, fun tunes to make the ultimate soundtrack to your summer/autumn/winter/spring. In certain circles this guy is royalty - he was the main dude in Bomb The Music Industry - but on this album he lays claim to something more. Yep, he just might be a god.


I'm not going to cheat and try to sneak an extra album into the list. Truth is I spent hours trying to decide which of these albums was better. Then I figured, fuck it. It would be a disservice to relegate either of them to second place:

After the Fall - Dedication. Quite possibly the most heartfelt (and heartbreaking) 19 minutes ever committed to wax, Dedication delivers exactly what its title suggest: a glorious tribute to a lost friend. As sadness gave way to fury which in turn gave way to celebration, I felt that I got to know former ATF bassist Brian Peters, his friends and his family. The love his bandmates still have for the guy is palpable. That they are in the best form of their career and used their phenomenal powers to express it only added to this absolute gem of an album. It also has one of the most beautiful messages of the year, something that Brian himself said before he died: All that's left is love and forgiveness. I cried from the moment this record started til the moment it ended.

Good Riddance - Peace In Our Time. I'm just going to come out and say it: There will never be a better comeback album than Peace In Our Time. I was totally bummed when Good Riddance called it quits back in 2007. Sure, they had lost some of their fire towards the end but they were still responsible for many of the most important albums of my formative years. Of course, when I got word of a new album in the works I thought it a bit much to hope for another Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion or Ballads From The Revolution. Then I got my hands on a copy of this and holy blast beat had they delivered! Peace In Our Time is urgent, angry, politically insightful and highly intelligent. It's also a bucketload of fun. Backed by a live show (they toured Australia soon after the release) that packed just as much punch as the record, it's fair to say that Good Riddance are damn well back and as incredible as they've ever been.

2015: A Short List of Lists

on Monday, December 14, 2015
Panic. Panic! PANIC!!!!!!

I'm not sure where I've been for the past 12 months but I awoke this morning from an almighty slumber to realise that HOLY CRAP we're halfway through December, I'm nowhere near my reading target and BookGods help me it's time to assemble my thoughts into something of a coherent order for the purposes of apportioning cheers (both genuine and Bronx) to the paltry few I have devoured in 2015 (about 110 thus far with a fortnight to go). *Big Breath Out*

So for those of you who care to stay abreast of my ramblings, I present this year's schedule of pontification*.

December 19: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

December 22: The Shelf of Shame

December 26: The Best of Bridesmaids

December 29: The Final Countdown

December 31: Bait For Bookworms Best Book of 2015

* It should be noted that I really only do this post each year to set myself deadlines or else I'd never get around to it or work myself into an absolute tizz in the few days leading up to new year's.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Turtle: Oliver Sacks and Terry Pratchett on Death and Dying

on Monday, December 7, 2015
This year we lost two of the finest souls in contemporary literature. In many ways they could not have been more different, yet both had profound things to say about the human condition and were enormously important to me in my formative years. I was first introduced to the work of Oliver Sacks when my father's cousin handed me a copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat when I was about thirteen, urging me to read it because not only was it a great book but one of the twins from Sacks's study worked as the super in his apartment building. I opened the first page and a literary love affair was born. Whenever I visited New York I tried to find the twin but never had any luck (I did see Liza Minelli in the elevator though). Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, was someone I stumbled upon myself, quite by accident. I was in an airport on a layover and had already finished the book I had brought along for the holiday. I can't remember where said airport was but it was small and shitty and the newsstand had very few book on offer. One was Small Gods by some guy with a white beard and black stetson hat. It was supposedly a comedy, a wicked satire on organised religion. The idea of some clipped Gandalf spinning me a yarn about the way we worship right at the time I was beginning to have my own doubts was too much to resist. I picked it up and laughed the entire way to wherever it was I was headed.

Both Sacks and Pratchett have been constants in my reading life. That's not to say I've read everything they've released, nor that I've loved each work equally. But they have consistently delivered and, between them, made the world a more thoughtful, interesting and enjoyable place. When they died within six months of each other, I felt it as a personal loss. It pained me to think that their wonderfully individual voices had fallen silent. And so it was with some trepidation that I picked up two little books that have just been released - quite possibly their last, though I somehow doubt it (publishers will Tupac the shit out of them) - Gratitude and Shaking Hands With Death. As the titles suggest, the books both deal with the idea of mortality. They are two of my lifetime's greatest minds writing in the face of death. Unlike Christopher Hitchens's Mortality, neither of these works are new or previously unpublished. Gratitude contains four of Sacks's short essays on death - Mercury, My Own Life, My Periodic Table and Sabbath - all of which appeared in The New York Times. Shaking Hands With Death is the text of Pratchett's Richard Dimbley Oration, broadcast on BBC1 back in 2010. So is there any point in buying them? Well, yes and sort of.

Gratitude is a gorgeous little hardcover and the words contained within are as good as any philosophical ponderings on death I've ever encountered. The sharpness of Sacks's scientific mind was equalled only by the enormity of his loving heart. He was a man full of compassion, constantly in awe of the world around him. Facing death seems only to have driven him more. As he says in one piece, "I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective." Each essay in this collection is packed full of magical nuggets that will make you stop and take a breath before continuing on. To have achieved all Sacks did and still be so humble, to face death with such dignity, without regret, with true gratitude, is something to behold. Is there a better sentiment that the one he puts forward in In My Life (and quoted on the back cover of Gratitude)?: "I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure." Or the closing paragraph of the staggeringly beautiful Sabbath: "And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life - achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one's life as well, when one can feel that one's work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest."

Shaking Hands With Death is an altogether different beast. Reading the words feels somewhat artificial - they are clearly meant to be heard, preferably from Pratchett's own mouth. There are, thankfully, moments of classic Pratchett wit and insight. There are even a couple of laughs which, I suppose, is a big ask for a speech on early onset Alzheimer's Disease. Mostly, this little book is an impassioned plea to reconsider the question of dying with dignity and, more importantly, assisting those who wish to do so to die in the most pain-free, humane and respectful way. There is much to like here - Pratchett does a great job of normalising a highly stigmatised illness. By telling his own tale of diagnosis, of learning to cope with the symptoms, of understanding the meaning of what will become of him, he transforms a very medical, cerebral story into an entirely human one. Add to that moments of autobiography, particularly regarding his relationship with his father and the death thereof, and we end up with a perfectly lovely little book. And yet, for some reason, Shaking Hands With Death feels an awful lot more like a cash-grab than Gratitude. For all its warmth it ultimately feels like a submission to government and, as such, something we needn't have read in the form it has been presented. Oddly, its release coincided with a much more important work by Pratchett: his final Discworld novel, The Shepherd's Crown. Might I suggest you pick that up instead and take one last ride on the turtle. There, hiding under the trainee witch Tiffany Aching's hat, you will find the man we all so dearly miss.

Paris as (Em)Pyre: Submission by Michel Houellebecq

on Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Age may well have transformed Michel Houellebecq into some kind of crumpled homeless hobbit but I'm quite certain that behind the dishevelled facade lies the one true prophet of the paranoid European zeitgeist. Of course, Houellebecq has always courted controversy - he loves to shock in as offensive a way as possible; he is Charlie Hebdo personified. In the past, it has been through absurd premises that served as entrees into extreme (usually sexually explicit) calamities. Somewhere in the middle days of his career, with books like Platform and The Possibility of an Island, he kind of disappeared like a gerbil up his own arse. The classic Houellebecquian (I suppose it must be a word by now) tropes were there but the man himself seemed absent. Sure, they shocked, but they were boring. My faith in this odd little man was restored with The Map and The Territory, one of the few postmodern clusterfucks I've read that actually works. Now he's back and, I think it's fair to say, he's found a new purpose.

Submission is very much Houellebecq's state of the world novel. It doesn't take much digging beyond the headlines to know that France is ground zero for the ideological and religious battle over Europe. Houellebecq takes this one step further and sets his book only a few years in the future, when the Muslim majority achieves legitimate political supremacy - France has its first Muslim president. Rather than some lame, dictatorial cliche, Mohammed Ben-Abbes is a charismatic, popular, smooth talking politician. In many ways he represents hope for a bright future. Able to access unlimited wealth from Arab allies, he lifts France from its economic doldrums and sets it on a path of reconstruction. He even speaks moderately on the issue of Israel/Palestine (yup, it's still a problem twenty years from now). Naturally, there are compromises that have to be made. The Sorbonne is privatised and only men are allowed to teach. Girls can study but they must be fully covered. Polygamy is both legalised and encouraged. There is a new focus on 'the family as the central unit of French society', used to justify the relegation of women to domestic duties. Oh, and Ben-Abbes aspires to some kind of new Roman Empire via the EU, over which France will have control.

Houellebecq frames the novel through an academic prism; its narrator, Francois, is a middle rung literature lecturer at Paris III with a particular penchant for JK Huysmans. Caught up in a whopping midlife crisis, he spends his days stressing about his academic future while making sense of his relationship with his Jewish student, Miryam. When not fucking up his life, Francois pays close attention to the ascent of Ben-Abbes's Muslim Brotherhood amidst the general tumult that has beset French politics. When Ben-Abbe's presidency becomes a fait accompli, Miryam flees to Israel and Francois goes off the deep end, scouring the escort pages of local newspapers in search of meaning through sex. Here, Houellebecq is up to his old tricks; Francois's exploits are cheap and demeaning. Despair ultimately drives him to the same monastery where Huysmans sought refuge - a place that is symbolic of previous battles with Islamic forces - but that too is a bunk. He can barely tolerate a week before he gives up. With his tail between his legs (both literally and figuratively), he slinks back to Paris where he resigns himself to conversion. You know what they say: If you can't beat 'em...

Submission is much more than the hype would have you believe. It's very easy to get caught up in the sensationalism of its premise but Houellebecq proves his genius by not succumbing to the paranoia behind it. Rather, at heart, the book is a brilliant exploration of academic and individual freedom in a rapidly changing world. It is equal parts horrifying and hilarious: Francois might be an exercise in frustration but he ain't nothing compared with his colleagues. You have to feel for his former head of department, a brilliant woman, who has no choice but to accept a generous severance package. Similarly, you can't help but laugh at the weedy stereotypical dorks who have been assigned multiple young, attractive wives by the new administration thereby ensuring their enthusiastic embrace of a new God. To this end I was reminded of another great Michel, Tournier, who explored the way major societal changes can benefit the unlikeable misfits in his remarkable novel, The Erl King (aka The Ogre). Ditto Alberto Moravia in The Conformist. Must be a European thing.

It is hard, in the end, to gauge what Houellebecq wants us to think of France's future. Submission seems a journalistic enterprise undertaken without a particular agenda by a reporter in possession of a telescopic (an inter-dimensional) lens; it is a plausible description of how things might turn out. In so doing, he steers clear of outright judgement and allows hedonism, anomie and religion to square off in some kind of perverse royal rumble where none can really be the victor. Except for those of us who read it. We definitely win.

Mussolini's Pendulum: Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

on Monday, November 2, 2015
Stop the presses! A new Eco? How did I not even know about this? And.. wait for it... a mere 190 pages. Where are the other 500? Someone has given the space/time continuum an unceremonious shove. Could it be that the master of the cerebral literary thriller has gone off on a lesser folly?

Colonna, a washed up journo, is approached to write a memoir about a newspaper that has never actually gone to press. Part of his brief is to assemble a group of similar hacks to 'publish' twelve editions of the paper as an example of what it once was. The main aim, so far as Colonna can tell, is to help the commissioning benefactor get a leg up in the higher echelons of Italian society through what amounts to blackmail. At first, Numero Zero seems a trite commentary on the nature of contemporary journalism. Set at the dawn of the information age, but written with hindsight, it is perfectly posited to take well-aimed pot shots. Alas, what we get instead are cheap gags, lame puns and completely obvious 'revelations'. Evelyn Waugh this is not. Then, about half way through, Eco finds his feet and remembers, thank god, that he is (to borrow from Samuel L. Jackson) Umberto Fucking Eco. The master. One of the lowly hacks Colonna has hired comes to him with a conspiracy to end all conspiracies (at least in Italian terms): Mussolini survived the war and was kept hidden in anticipation of his return to power. Backed by a bunch of pro-Fascist movements across Europe - the Stay Behind gangs - and centred around the Italian incarnation Gladio, the plot was furthered by all kinds of dastardly undertakings. The kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro? That was them. The mysterious death of Pope John Paul I? Yup, them too. The bombing at Piazza Fontana? You get the point. The only thing that stopped the whole thing coming to fruition was the rather inconvenient natural death of Mussolini. They had waited too long to make their move.

Snatching at a grab bag of historical moments, Eco deftly weaves a meta conspiracy that is so much fun it is hard not to buy in. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for 'what if' novels and while Numero Zero is no Fatherland, it still possesses the creative attention to manufactured detail that I adore. It also leans heavily on a book I loved as a kid - In God's Name - David Yallop's riveting investigation into the Vatican bank and its possible role in the murder of the first John Paul. Eco explicitly uses the book's findings as an evidentiary tether, citing Yallop as authority for many of his more ludicrous but wonderful assertions. The whole thing is a blast and Eco rounds it off, in true style, with a murder. The hack journo is silenced and the entire project is shut down. That might have been the end of it, except Eco is determined to make one last point about journalism in the information age. There are, he suggests, no new stories under the sun. Sure, there might be offcuts around the frayed edges but the idea of the exclusive keeper of information has been obliterated. It's a point well made in an enjoyable, if rather slight, work by a true master in his twilight years.

A Senior Gong (for) Marley: Marlon James Takes the Booker. Good Luck Casual Readers!

on Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Having spent the whole morning refreshing my web browser on the Booker Prize home page, it finally paid off with a change of screen to tell me that Marlon James had won this year's prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. As expected, I didn't pick it. Not even close. It was the one book in the entire shortlist that I found hardest to wade through, not because it was boring or bad by any stretch of the imagination, but because I didn't ever really connect with it. That said, I knew I was reading something quite brilliant. I just wonder how casual readers who use the Booker as their barometer for what to read over the Christmas break will fare with the Jamaican Patois. Nevertheless, a very impressive win for a very impressive book.

Betting on The Booker Prize 2015: The Bookworm versus The Bookmakers

on Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Ok LitNerds... Once again I'm rolling up my sleeves and preparing to take on the betting giants in a battle to the bank. Of course, I have no intention of actually putting any money on this here endeavour. I'm not stupid enough to fall for that again (PS you still owe me JM Coetzee, Lloyd Jones and Kazuo Ishiguro). But that won't stop me giving my considered opinion on where you should put your hard-earned dinaros*.

Right, so let's look what's on offer**.

Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life.
What the bookmakers say: 6/4 (which, last time I went to school, was 3/2)
What the critics say: "... it’s the great 90s novel a quarter of a century too late; it’s a devastating read that will leave your heart, like the Grinch’s, a few sizes larger." Alex Preston in The Guardian.
What I said: "... as a novel of the legacy of damage and the boundaries of love and friendship this novel is almost without equal."
Will it win? Possibly but I doubt it. It's a great book but it's most likely too big, too heavy and too American to take home the gong. That said, it'd be pretty wonderful if Yanagihara was the first non-Commonwealth writer to bag a Booker. I'd prefer her any day over, say, Jonathan Franzen or some other similar hype factory.

Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways
What the bookmakers say: 5/2
What the critics say: "He exposes the gaps and hidden spaces of our contemporary global society and shows how it feels to live in the gaps. You could do a great deal worse than pay attention to this splendid novel." Richard Brown in The Conversation.
What I said: "... a tour de force of naked compassion and honesty let down only by an epilogue that hints at happy endings."
Will it win? Some mystery Booker savant came out this week to say it will and, apparently, he's never wrong. A sudden flurry of betting ensued, cutting Sahota's odds dramatically. Again a fantastic book and, I dare say, the kind of book that would appeal to Team Booker but I think there are stronger contenders in the field.

Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings
What the bookmakers say: 7/2
What the critics say: "Spoof, nightmare, blood bath, poem, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” eventually takes on a mesmerizing power." Zachary Lazar in The New York Times
What I said: "... a magnificent achievement.... And yet, for some strange reason, I just could not connect with it."
Will it win? Unquestionably the sort of book that rolls down a hill collecting accolades but I think it might scare too many middle-of-the-road readers to stand a real chance here. Let's face it, Booker is where Literati and LitLite meet to briefly clink glasses before going their separate ways.

Tom McCarthy's Satin Island
What the bookmakers say: 10/1
What the critics say: "It provokes and beguiles and, at the point of revelation, it withholds. On finishing it you will have the powerful urge to throw it across the room then the powerful urge to pick it up to read again. And that’s what’s so brilliant." Duncan White in The Telegraph
What I said: "Tom McCarthy is shaping up to be this generation's JG Ballard."
Will it win? No but I'd love it to. McCarthy will always be the quirky bridesmaid. Sure, the pop literary set want to claim him as one of their own but they're a little too scared to actually stamp his naturalisation papers. Dare I say, it's probably better that way.

Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread
What the bookmakers say: 10/1
What the critics say: "... in the telescope of Tyler’s narrative, we can see the interplay of accident and willfulness, love and envy that created these complicated people who pretend they have no secrets." Ron Charles in The Washington Post.
What I said: "Twenty books is a pretty impressive innings. Alas, she is not finishing on a high."
Will it win? Dear God I hope not. Yes she's fantastic but it would be akin to awarding the prize to a great author like John Banville for a subpar novel like The Sea... Oh...

Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen
What the bookmakers say: 10/1
What the critics say: "The Fishermen is a strikingly accomplished debut, hailing Chigozie Obioma as a bold new voice in Nigerian fiction." Lucy Scholes in The Independent
What I said: "... a bold and original debut, drawing beautifully upon an entire body of mythology to tell a very contemporary, universal story."
Will it win? My prediction for a surprise win. It has everything a Booker winner should have and is accessible to high-end LitNerds and casual readers alike. A great book that is highly deserving of any prize that should come its way.

So, in summary, I would love, love, LOVE Tom McCarthy to win it but I don't think he will. As usual, I'm going to go against the odds and pick Obioma. No doubt I'll be wrong but, if I'm right and you win big money, email me and I'll let you know where to send the drink you so desperately want to shout. And, to save you the embarrassing to-and-fro: Mojitos and Pilsner.

* I take no responsibility for your inevitable loss of said dinaros.
** Note all odds are from Ladbrokes and are current as at 5.30pm on Tuesday 13 October in Melbourne, Australia.

Microviews Vol. 56: The Booker Prize Shortlist 2015

Well here it is: you last minute cheater's guide to this year's Man Booker Prize Shortlist. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Like most upper middle class white kids, I spent the better part of my university days listening to Bob Marley and convincing myself that every little thing was going to be alright. I never gave much thought to the man himself. He was, to borrow a phrase, a cliché gueverra, someone who inhabited my musical universe and a fair few t-shirts, but did not really exist in the real world. In fact, I knew only three things about him: he smoked way more weed than all my friends combined, he shagged more women than I could ever hope to even meet and he died from toe cancer (if that's even a thing). What I didn't know until much later was that he was actively involved in Jamaican politics and, in 1973, was the target of an assassination attempt. It is this tumultuous period - and the attack on Marley - that provides the springboard for Marlon James's challenging novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. In the tradition of William Faulkner, the story is told from a variety of perspectives, mostly the gangsters and thugs involved in the attack but also a CIA operative, some music reporters and friends and lovers of "the Singer" as he is known in the book. James pulls no punches in relating the violence and corruption of 1970s Jamaica. One thing is clear from the outset: life ain't worth shit. Tarantino would be proud. People are killed frequently and in spectacular fashion. At the centre of the shitstorm is Josey Wales, about as good a bad guy as The Judge in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. And what a nasty motherfucker he is: killing, maiming and torturing without so much as a thought, let alone a care. In a way, the book is just as much Wales's story as it is Marley's. Indeed, Marley makes only infrequent appearances and, more often than not, does not come out of it looking particularly good. If James is to be believed (and the depth and breadth of his research surely suggests that he should) Marley was a pretty nasty character himself. I suppose I'd be a vindictive arsehole too if someone tried to kill me but, even so, it is confronting to see a hero of peace watching on as his enemies are tortured or killed. And it is not just the substance of the novel that makes it a tough read. James goes the Irvine Welsh route, utilising dense Jamaican Patios that, I imagine, might scare some readers away. Six hundred and ninety pages of difficult-to-read lingo is quite the ask no matter how cool the tale being told might be. Greatly ambitious, epic in scope (the novel stretches far beyond Marley's death into the infiltration of Jamaican expats in the New York drug scene of the 80s), A Brief History of Seven Killings is a magnificent achievement. It shines a light on the dark political rumblings of a country in crisis, where outside forces try to impose their will (cough cough CIA cough cough) while the worms of corruption eat it from within. And yet, for some strange reason, I just could not connect with it. Reading the book seemed a chore. I wish I could pinpoint where the schism lay. Perhaps it was the unrelenting intensity - I needed some moments of levity if only to catch my breath. It might have been the hype - I've come to it late and am almost drowning in the adoring fanboy froth that surrounds it. Or maybe it felt a little too drawn out. In that way it reminded me of my difficult relationship with the works of David Foster Wallace. Whatever the reason, I was never truly swept up in it which is a shame really. I can't help but feel I was handed an entire world and turned my back. A Redemption Song this was not.
3.5 Out of 5 Exploding Hash Cookies

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Four books into his career and Tom McCarthy is shaping up to be this generation's JG Ballard. I don't make the comparison lightly. When it comes to the combination of vision, inventiveness, social criticism and experimental gusto only McCarthy comes close to the late, great master. Or maybe he's just Thomas Pynchon in disguise. Stranger things have happened. Whatever, Satin Island continues McCarthy's fascination with the "essence of now" (my term, not his, pardon the quotation marks), this time putting it front and centre. The narrator, U., is an anthropologist engaged by The Company where he has been tasked with writing a study that will distill modern life to its very essence. It's never quite clear what The Company does (only that it has recently won a major account, the Koob-Sassen Project) nor why it has him embark on this peculiar task. Nevertheless, with all the dogged perseverance of his hero Claude Levi-Strauss, U. begins to compile dossiers from snippets of modern existence, looking for links, themes, arcs and, ultimately, meaning. There are meditations on airports, cargo cults of Vanuatu, a parachuting accident that is most likely a murder, email scams... you name it. U.'s task becomes more obsessive as the novel progresses, its manic escalation sweeping the reader up in a world that is expanding and contracting at the same time. It also gets quite funny; so much so that I suspect McCarthy is having a bit of a laugh at our expense. It doesn't matter. He clearly wants us to laugh along with him. And we do. Until we cry.
4 Out Of 5 Broken Hyperlinks

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara
Seldom does an author arrive on the scene so fully formed, so thoroughly accomplished, that you're forced to reconsider your views on reincarnation. Such was the case with Hanya Yanigahara and her debut, The People of the Trees. One of my favourites of 2013, it continues to haunt me and I still rate it as one of the most morally challenging novels that I've ever read. That it was her first book beggars belief. Of course from such great heights often come equally great falls - there is the dreaded curse of the sophomore novel - and so it was with considerable trepidation that I picked up the dauntingly massive, A Little Life. Four young men meet in college and become fast friends. Each one is a prodigy of sorts - arty, talented, ambitious and fiercely intelligent - but it is Jude St Francis who is the star around which the others revolve. Jude never speaks about his past. There is a darkness about him that cannot be penetrated, something from his childhood that is so deeply traumatic that it shrouds his very existence in a cloak of unimaginable suffering. Yanagihara allows us to see through the cracks early - Jude cuts himself. Often. He has a constant supply of razors and gauze. The others rally around him as you would a wounded puppy, albeit one prone to lashing out and biting you. Even on the most superficial level Jude needs help. His legs are crippled. He walks with splints when he can walk at all. Otherwise he is wheelchair-bound. On the flip side, Jude is a stellar student. He excels at law school and is a mathematical genius. There is no question that he is bound for some kind of glory. Once school is over Jude, like the others, makes his way to New York City and we watch him take root in a town that is almost made for him - outwardly it sparkles but its underbelly is rotting and mouldy. Yanagihara spends few words on Jude's career. We know that he succeeds, that he is headhunted by a large commercial firm, that he rises up the ranks to become one of its most ruthless and feared attorneys. But it is his personal life that Yanagihara explores in the greatest depth and holy shit is it disturbing. If The People of the Trees examined the way in which a person can misuse his power to destroy the lives of others then A Little Life is almost its companion opposite. It is the story from the perspective of the destroyed. Jude is the single most broken man I've ever encountered in literature. There is almost a perverse spectacle in the litany of sufferings he endures. He is Job minus the faith. Abandoned on the steps of a monastery as a baby, he is raised by the monks who routinely pass him around as their sexual plaything. He finds solace in one particular monk but, unsurprisingly, that monster turns out to be the worst. He kidnaps Jude, takes him from state to state and pimps him out to pedophiles around the country to make ends meet. It is awful to witness as a reader and Yanagihara is not afraid to describe it in fine detail. There are moments of reprieve - Jude's college days, his adoption but a particularly wonderful university lecturer and his wife (probably the only driftwood of pure goodness in the novel), his finding love with his best friend - but he is too damaged to truly appreciate it. He continues to punish himself with cutting, with suicide attempts, with undignified encounters (one particular affair with an abusive older partner had me in tears). Jude is an exercise is self-loathing, a repository for all the world's suffering. In that way Yanagihara achieves what William H. Gass attempted in his most recent novel, Middle C. A Little Life is a harrowing read. The unrelenting bleakness of Jude's plight is breathtaking. And it goes on for almost eight hundred pages. As a reader, you are likely to despair the experience of witnessing it. But as a novel of the legacy of damage and the boundaries of love and friendship this novel is almost without equal. Hanya Yanagihara is the real deal. And she's willing to plumb the depths of humanity to prove it. Now can someone please pass me a stiff drink or twenty?
5 Out of 5 Blunted Blades

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
I'll keep this one short. Anne Tyler is an American national treasure. She has written many amazing novels. She has a knack for breezy dialogue that few others possess and her ability to find meaning in the life of ordinary people - her penchant for perfect empathy - is extraordinary. A Spool of Blue Thread is her last novel. She announced her retirement soon before its publication. Twenty books is a pretty impressive innings. Alas, she is not finishing on a high. A Spool of Blue Thread also happens to be one of her weaker books. I don't know what's with the current fashion of telling tales in reverse chronological order but for some reason Tyler seems to have seen the train and decided to hop aboard. And so we get the story of the Whitshank family across three (well, sort of four) generations, starting with the sad twilight years of Abby and Red. More to the point, we get the story of their house on Boulton Road, one built and, but for the brief stay of a snooty family who commissioned it, lived in by Red's parents, Junior and Linnie May. The book kicks off with the family converging on the house to care for Red as Abby disappears into a demented haze. It's sad, it's touching, it's remarkably unremarkable. As you might expect there's a bunch of unresolved tensions suddenly brought to the fore - mostly surrounding the difficult wastrel Denny and the adopted fave Stem. Fisticuffs seem in the offing. Fisticuffs ensue. And so it goes. The book is divided into four parts, each set in a different era. Any warmth you might have for certain characters is sure to be tested when you meet their earlier (or later) incarnations. I don't think it was Tyler's intention, but I couldn't help but feel that the Whitshanks were a pretty annoying family. Especially Linnie Mae. Seriously, she drove me mad. What saves them from being insufferable, however, is Tyler's unquestionable skill as a novelist. It is a joy to read her, even when you don't like the substance of what she is writing. I'm sad to see Tyler go. I'd hope that she had one more book in her - something to remind us how truly wonderful she is without having to reread The Accidental Tourist or A Patchwork Planet.
2.5 Out of 5 Porch Swings

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Critics have been quick to slap lazy comparisons on Obioma's quite stunning debut. There's the biblical: Cain and Abel. Yep, it's a story about brothers. It's tragic, cataclysmic even. Next there are the classics: any number of Greek tragedies. Death foretold and played out. Some can't resist the easy African comparison: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Okay, so it's a Nigerian tale in which Obioma addresses the collision of modernity and traditional African life. Achebe's book even makes an appearance or two. But, c'mon... There are still others. Equally applicable but altogether inadequate. If I were to throw my hat into the ring, I might choose The Virgin Suicides; The Fishermen has the same blend of mystery and inevitability, you know where it's going, your heart aches in advance but you can't turn away. To reduce The Fisherman to what it's (kind of) like, however, is to do it a serious injustice. This is a bold and original debut, drawing beautifully upon an entire body of mythology to tell a very contemporary, universal story. The Fishermen of the title are four young brothers growing up in the rural Nigerian town of Akure in the politically turbulent 1990s. Their father has big dreams for them - they will be doctors, lawyers and such - and won't abide their parochial old world leanings. When they are spotted fishing by the town's tattletale, he is bitterly disappointed but is able to spin their dream of being actual fishermen into something more metaphorical. Poverty drives him out of town to find work, leaving the boys to skip school and resume their childish ways. They are, after all, only boys. One day, while returning home, they are confronted by the village madman who warns them of a dire prophecy: the oldest brother will be killed by one of the others. So begins a horrible downward spiral; paranoia compounds normal sibling tensions until the prophecy comes true. Those left behind have only one dream: revenge. Told by Ben, the youngest of the brothers, The Fisherman maintains a childlike wonder throughout. Like make of the best child narrators in literary history, his voice is knowingly assured but perhaps a small step away from full understanding. We, as readers, are left to fill in the blanks, to wade through the mythological imagery and find the real meaning in what he tells us. Ben forces us to bear witness to the collapse of a family that holds within it the hopes and dreams of a new Africa. I called it when this review was first posted back in June: The Fisherman has to be a clear frontrunner for this year's Booker.
4.5 Out Of 5 Marks of Cain

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
At times, there is a fine line between migrant and refugee. While our collective sympathy is easily mobilised by images of those who flee their homelands, trudging across borders, sleeping in forests, boarding rickety boats or facing down hostile fascists in the countries where they seek refuge, we often fail to appreciate the desperation and degradation that besets many of those who leave in less sensational circumstances. Sure, they come in with visas but they too are, in essence, refugees, having fled economic adversity, sectarian or caste subjugation or any number of other hardships. They become the underclass, the invisible minions. They are routinely exploited, abused and overlooked. In his powerful second novel, The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota picks off the scab of wilful blindness to reveal a heartbreaking side of contemporary British society through the lives of four young Indians just trying to find their feet. The first three are new arrivals. Randeep has come in on a dodgy marriage visa. The "marriage" is a financial arrangement and will be nullified after a year when Randeep can get a visa in his own right. Avtar has a student visa but quickly dumps his study for manual labour wherever it can be found. When he still can't make ends meet, he turns to loan sharks and then to the organ black market. Perhaps the saddest story belongs to Tarlochan, a low-caste Chamaar who has barely escaped India with his life after surviving riots that saw his parents set on fire in front of him. In some ways he does the best of the three, but you get the feeling it's only because he literally has nothing. And even in England he faces the same caste discrimination he thought he'd left behind. Then there's Narinder, a British-born sikh girl who is Randeep's visa wife but who must wrestle familial expectations and her own crisis of belief if she is to find her way. Throughout there's an air of constant dread that she'll fall victim to a so-called honour killing by her violent, possessive brother. Sahota draws each of his characters with great depth of heart, deftly avoiding melodrama or salaciousness despite the quite shocking narrative turns. There is a wisdom to his message that belies his age and experience. He wades though the shit but still lets the odd ray of light slip through. The Year of the Runaways is a testament to human will, to optimism in the face of extreme adversity. To that end it reminded me of George Orwell or Upton Sinclair. It is a tour de force of naked compassion and honesty let down only by an epilogue that hints at happy endings.
4 Out Of 5 Knotted Saris

Nobel Prize 2015: Alexievich's Brave New Literary World

on Thursday, October 8, 2015
As we all scramble to read up on Svetlana Aleksijevitj (or, as we now seem to be spelling it, Alexievich), it's worth considering the wider implications of her win. Her's has not been a name that has come up too often in the past. Personally, I'd never even heard of her three days ago. Still she stood above many of the perennial faves - Murakami (never gonna win), Roth (nope), Adunis (long-time bridesmaid), Dylan (you're totally pranking me, right?) - on the bookmakers' tables.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe my reading is so insular that I've become unaware of an entire literary world beyond my own bookshelf. The one thing I never considered, the one that had me pretty much dismissing Alexievich out of hand (once I knew who she was), is that journalism might be considered "literature" for the purposes of the prize. In the past, it has almost always gone to a novelist or poet. Sure, they might engage in criticism or journalism in their spare time, but it is never the essence of their literary output. I stand to be corrected (and I'm guessing I will be), but the last non-fiction laureate was Winston Churchill. And who the hell actually considers him a REAL Nobel literary laureate anyway? Now with Alexievich's win, the field has been cracked wide open.

The Nobel Committee, in their now typically pithy citation, pointed to "her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time." Fancy. Not that it helps us know anything about what she does. Their bibliographical note is a little more enlightening:

"For many years, she collected materials for her first book U vojny ne ženskoe lico (1985; War’s Unwomanly Face, 1988), which is based on interviews with hundreds of women who participated in the Second World War. This work is the first in Alexievich’s grand cycle of books, “Voices of Utopia”, where life in the Soviet Union is depicted from the perspective of the individual.
By means of her extraordinary method – a carefully composed collage of human voices – Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era. The consequences of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl 1986 is the topic of Černobyl’skaja molitva (1997; Voices from ChernobylChronicle of the Future, 1999). Cinkovye mal’čiki (1990; Zinky Boys – Soviet voices from a forgotten war, 1992) is a portrayal of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan 1979–89, and her work Vremja second chènd (2013; “Second-hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man”) is the latest in “Voices of Utopia”. Another early book that also belongs in this lifelong project is Poslednie svideteli (1985; “Last witnesses”)."

Seems there is a lot of interesting material for me to trawl through over the coming weeks if I can tear myself away from the world of fiction. Thankfully, her oeuvre seems right up my alley. Either way, I'm putting 2015 down as a watershed year for the prize. At last it is recognising a form that speaks not from behind a creative veil but, rather, straight from the shit-stained troughs of our fucked up world. And that, dear LitNerds, is a big win.

Nobel Prize 2015: Svetlana Aleksijevitj

The bookie's had it. Go figure. Now I'm going to have to break my Fiction Only rule.

An intriguing win. Off to order some books I go...

From Out of Nowhere: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2015

on Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Svetlana Aleksijevitj. Heard of her? You know, the Belarusian investigative journalist? Still nothing? Didn't think so. Well right now she's sitting comfortably atop most bookies' tables as the clear favourite for this year's Nobel Prize in Literature.

Of course, there is a certain logic to it. Everything about the prize seems counterintuitive. Conspiracy theorists would have a field day if only they gave a crap about literature. Suffice to say the whole thing is shrouded in secrecy and, more often than not, we only become fans of the winner post facto. Seriously, how many of us knew Patrick Modiano before last year? Thankfully, that turned out to be a popular choice because when we all got around to reading him (which for the more obsessed among us was about 4 minutes after he was awarded the prize, slowed only by the need for a knee-jerk blog post about it all) he turned out to be pretty darn excellent. Admittedly, I speak for some sort of English language hegemonic league of arrogance but every now and then I like to pin a badge on myself and say I've read the winner before they were famous (so to speak).

A quick scan of bookies' list finds a few other relative unknowns (at least in the English-speaking world) such as Maryse Condé, Bei Dao and Ko Un alongside perennial favourites Haruki Murakami, Adunis, Philip Roth and, yes (*sigh*) Bob Dylan. I'll never understand how anyone could ever put serious money on that guy and, even if he were to win, I can't imagine that he could pull himself together enough to ascend a podium and string anything resembling a coherent sentence together. Have you seen him play live in the past twenty years? Sad, sad man. But I digress...

Onto what is bound to be my annual wildly inaccurate prediction:

Buoyed by the reception of their last semi-obscure pick, the Literary Round Table of Nobel will venture a little further afield and push their luck just so none of us get too confident in their ability to pick worthy winners. Near misses will be my two faves (László Krasznahorkai and Ismail Kadare) who fall just outside the semi-obscure category - not to mention the inconvenient fact that they would actually deserve it - as well as worthy contenders such as Ngūgī Wa Thiong'o or Joyce Carol Oates. Chances are they'll try to be a touch political but not too tokenistic. So someone who has a connection to geographical displacement or cultural alienation. And it's likely to be a woman. Hopefully of the Alice Munro or Doris Lessing kind and not another Elfriede Jelinek (no, I won't miss the chance to knock that every year. And not even Tomas Tranströmer can stop me. Well... he's dead... but two annual jokes now made!).

Ok so this year's Nobel Prize in Literature will go to a reasonably obscure middle eastern (or thereabouts) woman living in exile. That's my pick. Now you can confidently bet against it.

Unless they shift Belarus across a few countries...

Last Minute Edit: One and a half hours until the announcement and I'm jumping up with two serious picks: Sonallah Ibrahim or Tahar Ben Jelloun. Only because I want to be able to say I told you so. And if it's not, I'll look no more clueless than usual. Win/Win.

Finding Purpose in Purgatory: The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky

on Monday, September 28, 2015
Of all the strange cities I've visited around the world, few hold as special a place in my heart as Haifa. Mid-Eastophiles take note. Forget Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Forget Istanbul or Beirut. Amman? Nope. To me, it's all about that little city on a hill in Israel's north.

For those not in the know, Haifa is home to the best falafel in the world (Falafel Orion, made with white bean rather than chick pea and about fifty times more delicious than anything you'll find anywhere else) as well as the nicest bunch of guys to get together to form a punk band, Useless ID. It's also the only place in Israel where the cultural melting pot actually works. Jews, Muslims and Christians live in the kind of harmony we all speak about wistfully when we bandy around the idea of "Peace in the Middle East". That's not to say it isn't a city of tensions and contradictions. It's still Israel, after all. It's still kind of messed up, albeit in a very complex way. It is this very complexity that makes Haifa the perfect place for Leah Kaminsky to explore some very difficult issues of history, politics and the sense of self in her wonderful debut novel, The Waiting Room.

The book opens with Dina picking through the rubble in the aftermath of a suicide bombing. Ok, so straight up we realise we're in for some heavy shit. The prologue is short and sharp and, when the main body of the novel kicks off earlier that same day, we know from the outset that time is quite literally ticking. If there is such a thing as the Melbourne Expat Every-Jew, Dina is it. Born and raised in Australia, she is drawn to the promised land by a combination of ideology and love. She hits the ground running, quickly building her reputation as a GP in a local clinic while doing her best as a wife and mother. Like most Melbourne Jews, she also carries some serious baggage. She comes from Holocaust stock and is haunted, in her case quite literally, by the ghost of her obnoxious, loud-mouthed, judgemental mother. It is an interesting device - the woman acts as greek chorus and presiding magistrate throughout - though it might have you questioning Dina's mental health at times.

The Waiting Room is very much about the the way we live in a state of perpetual suspension. We are all, it seems, waiting for something, anything. Whether it be the return of love, the birth of a child (Dina is pregnant), the results of a test or the tangible manifestation of fear, time marches on undeterred. The question, though, is how we go about it. Sometimes, we can do little but prolong the agony. In one of the most moving sections, Dina cannot bring herself to tell a young mother that her symptoms are not caused by another pregnancy but, rather, the advanced stages of ovarian cancer. Other times, the waiting breaks us. Dina watches in exasperation as one of her more painful patients - an hilarious caricature of the typical pushy Israeli - tries to force her way to the front of the queue and then explodes at an unfortunate young Arab tradesman who is there to do some fixits. The book is full of this sort of thing - pregnant pauses and unexpected denouements. It also posits an interesting take on why we wait: the act can be an end in itself. It can be restorative, reparative. As the old Arab cobbler tells Dina when she comes to pick up some shoes, "Repairs take time". So it is with Dina in the end. The bomb goes off - we always knew it would - but it is what will set her on the way to a more balanced, meaningful life.

That Kaminsky should have such a nuanced understanding of the intricacies of waiting comes as little surprise. The Waiting Room took her over ten years to complete. Thankfully, the book is all the better for it. Let's just hope we don't have to wait too long for her next one.

Booker Prize 2015: The Stricken Field

on Sunday, September 27, 2015
Have you ever wondered which books the various publishers hoped would be in line for Booker glory? I'm not sure when Bookworld went all Hollywood on us, but a quick browse through my local bookstore this afternoon revealed a stricken field of heavy hitters in the New Releases section, names that have shown up on Booker shortlists of yore but were conspicuously absent this year (in retrospect). The only real surprise for me when the long list was announced was Jonathan Franzen's new brick, Purity. No doubt someone at FSG saw a sure-fire home run for America's first Booker. Alas, poor Johnny turned out to be an also ran. Never fear, he was in good company. Books released in the past week or so that I assume were scheduled to coincide with Booker season include:

Salman Rushdie - Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Pat Barker - Noonday
Andrew Miller - The Crossing
Rupert Thomson - Katherine Carlyle
William Boyd - Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay
John Banville - The Blue Guitar
Sebastian Faulks - Where My Heart Used to Beat
Maragret Attwood - The Heart Goes Last
Jeanette Winterson - The Gap of Time

Interesting omissions, n'est-ce pas? Now I'm left to wonder who will be wearing what on the red carpet and whether Will Self can play the role of literary Joan Rivers for TMZ... I clearly have too much time on my hands.

Booker Prize 2015: Best. Shortlist. Ever. (Well, not ever, but almost)

on Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Fifteen minutes down and I'm ready to call it: This is the best Booker Prize shortlist in years. Smart, literary and accessible, it promises hours of satisfying reading for those of us who stubbornly push our way through every nominated word in every nominated sentence in every nominated book every fucking year. And, while I'm a pretty smug bastard, I'm not only saying it because I pretty much picked it.

If you haven't seen the announcement yet, the six novels vying for Booker glory are:

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Leaving aside the Gold Watch nomination for Tyler, and Sahota's book that I know nothing about (but, judging by the other nominees is probably excellent), we have been gifted with four very worthy books, any of which will not bring shame or disappointment to the Booker name. It might even settle the great Booker/Folio shitfight.

As I said when the long list was announced, smart money would be on either Marlon James or Chigozie Obioma. I've only read the latter and I knew from the outset that it was bound to end up here. Meanwhile, I've heard nothing but the most frenzied of raves for James's story of Jamaica's most tumultuous period (which happened to include the attempted assassination of Bob Marley). Satin Island is brilliant - one of my favourite books this year - but it might be a bit intellectually offbeat for such a mainstream literary prize. And while I haven't read the Yanagihara yet, her last book, The People of the Trees, is one of the few truly revelatory novels of the past five years and, if the hype is to be believed, this is just as good.

I'm a little disappointed that Bill Clegg's long listed novel Did You Ever Have a Family didn't make it. I'm halfway through and it is a deeply moving novel about loss; a chain of voices reminiscent of the late great Andre Brink combined with Iain Pears and the mid-to-late 20th century American storytelling tradition of Wallace Stegner, William Faulkner and Richard Yates. The parochial Australasian in me is similarly disappointed that Anna Smaill didn't get through with her well-received novel, The Chimes but hey, we bagged it last year. And, for what it's worth, I'd have liked to see Marilynne Robinson's Lila there instead of Tyler's book. I'm never one for gold watches (I'm looking at you Ian McEwan).

The Booker Prize will be announced on October 15. I'm still calling it for Obioma. But we all know how that's likely to turn out.