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.


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