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.