2016 In Review: And The Winner Is...

on Saturday, December 31, 2016

Talk about reading out of your comfort zone!

Garth Greenwell's What Belongs To You is an unrelenting, lustful, homoerotic carnival of obsession and sacrifice. Kicking off with a tawdry quick fuck in the toilet cubicle of Bulgaria's National Museum of Culture, it follows the unnamed narrator's descent into near-madness as he falls for Mitko, an opportunistic rent boy who swans in and out of his life. It might seem an unlikely setup for an insightful examination of the modern human condition but let's face it, we all live in a world of anomie and unfulfilled desire. And Greenwell demonstrates a capacity for profound understanding that most philosophers would kill to possess.

In reviewing the book back in January, I said

Despite its rawness, its confronting sex scenes and its uncompromising penetration (pun only semi-intended) of the darker human heart, What Belongs To You is actually quite a tender novel. It is about what stands in place of love for the lonely and dispossessed. Above all else, the narrator wants to be needed in the way he comes to need Mitko. He wants their relationship to be something more than a financial transaction, even if he must give in to delusion to make it so. Greenwell's warm and supple touch strikes a perfect balance in his exploration of the competing facets of his narrator's fractured soul. In so doing, he draws out universals that transcend the easily dismissible context of the action. It is far too easy to pass off the more disturbing elements in the novel as particular to the gay beat scene. You would, of course, be wrong. It would be tantamount to denial. What Belongs To You is a well-polished mirror in which we can all see our deepest sexual selves. That is, if we dare to look.

I can't count the number of times I have stopped to think about this book, how many times I've been reading something else and just longed to be back in Greenwell's world. It is a stunning, sometimes shocking, novel of universal relevance and importance. Check your outdated, prudish discomfort at the door and pick up a copy today. It's a wild fucking ride!

Happy New Year fellow Litnerds and, once again, thanks for reading!

2016 In Review: It's The Final Countdown

on Friday, December 30, 2016
Keep your amuse-bouches, it's straight on to the good stuff. Here are the best books I've read this year. Get them in your eyes.

10. The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
With his steadfast refusal to be shoved into any literary pigeonhole, it's easy to forget that Colson Whitehead is one of the best damn writers in the English language. Seriously, the guy can write rings around almost all of his contemporaries, and he can do it while riffing on zombies or elevators. Or zombies in elevators. Following his much lauded Zone One, Whitehead returns to the world of Civil War America to deftly dissect one of its most interesting phenomenons, the secret rail network that ferried slaves out of the South on to freedom. It was, of course, a noble endeavour but one fraught with extreme danger. In Whitehead's hands, it also takes on an element of ambiguity - there were a lot of seedy opportunists involved in the project and he does not shy away for exposing them for what they were. Nor does he omit the nasty, complicit bastards on the Dixie side. In fact, to that end, the book brings to mind Cormac McCarthy complete with a nasty bounty hunter that might well have just stepped out of Blood Meridian. The Underground Railroad is a lesson on how historical fiction should be done: it is packed with information but never feels bogged down by the weight of Whitehead's knowledge. And for that, it is a thoroughly enthralling read even if it doesn't have zombies. Or elevators.

9. The Fighter - Arnold Zable
In a world of mostly unadulterated shit, Henry Nissen is - to borrow from Jon Lovitz's character in Happiness - a refreshing glass of champagne. A former boxing champion, Nissen has dedicated his life to helping others. I've had the good fortune of knowing him a while, and like everybody that's ever met him, I can say without equivocation that he is one of the kindest, hardest working, most beautiful humans I've ever known. For most of his life, Nissen has gone about his work without recognition or fanfare. Enter Arnold Zable, the poet laureate of human compassion. That there should be synergy between these two men comes as no surprise. They come from similar backgrounds - the children of greatly tormented Holocaust survivors - and grew up near one another in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. They both have hearts the size of minor planets. And they are both tirelessly committed to bettering the world for those less fortunate than themselves. But I don't think I could have predicted quite how gorgeous the product of the synergy would be. The Fighter is a remarkable book - a biography of sorts, spun in the fashion of a novel. And while Henry and his boxer brother Leon are no doubt its narrative centre, its true heart lies with their mother, Sonia. For me, The Fighter is really her story. Zable renders her scars with remarkable sensitivity but there is no hiding the extent of her trauma, nor the damage she inflicts on those who love her. It is in turns heartbreaking and terrifying. I had to stop a few times just to catch my breath. Thankfully, Zable knows about balance, and returns to either the boxing ring, the docks or the streets just as the reader is about to go down for the count. Having read almost all of his wonderful work, it strikes me that Zable has finally found his perfect subject. The Fighter is a magnificent achievement in narrative non-fiction.

8. The Noise of Time - Julian Barnes
For some time now (notably since the death of his wife), Julian Barnes has been regularly gifting us with small gems that might seem slight in comparison to the weightiness of his early work but stand alongside such brilliant books as England, England, Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters in terms of depth, power and profundity. Oddly, it took one of these short books - The Sense of an Ending - to finally bag him his long overdue Booker. Now, with his tender memoir, Levels of Life, acting as a conceptual bridge, Barnes returns to his fertile contemplative field of art or, more precisely, the meaning of art in The Noise of Life. This time round he smartly posits his meditation in a place that art could not flourish freely: Stalin's Russia. The Noise of Time is a fictional telling of Dmitri Shostakovich's fall from grace, redemption and ultimate destruction in the Soviet maelstrom. Shostakovich provides the perfect vehicle for Barnes to distill many of the ideas he has toyed with over the years - the interplay of art and power, individual identity, the place of the artist in society and the fragility of human dignity. In Shostakovich's tragic decline, we can see all these things play out and, perhaps, learn a thing or two about how we might fortify ourself in the face of threats to our basic humanity. It all might sound rather dour but, trust me, in Barnes's hands it is quite the uplifting experience.

7. The Tobacconist - Robert Seethaler
Last year, I picked a small book from the shelf simply for the beauty of its design. That silly impulse buy turned out to be one of my favourite novels of the year, Robert Seethaler's A Whole Life. This year, I was scanning the shelves of a bookstore in Dubai when I happened upon a new Seethaler. Holy shit. I actually had palpitations. The Tobacconist is a similarly gorgeous book and, like its predecessor, takes as its subject a barely significant 'nobody' - an everyman - around whom history unfolds. What makes The Tobacconist somehwhat less successful, however, is its use of a very famous person as a narrative device. Franz, the tobacconist of the title, is sent to Vienna by his mother in the hope of a better life, and becomes the assistant to Otto Trsnyek, a local corner shop owner. The shop happens to specialise in fine cigars. One of their most loyal customers - and I'm sure you can see this one coming - is none other than Sigmund Freud. As the dark clouds of Nazism cloak the city, things get bad for Trsnyek and Freud, both of whom, of course, are Jewish. Meanwhile, Franz is caught up in the typical confusion of young love and turns to Freud for assistance. It sounds kind of twee and I think it often skirts right on the edge of sentimentality but Seethaler is, thankfully, better than that. In fact, he shares many qualities with the European greats, something that both of his books will no doubt bring to mind as you read them. The Tobacconist is not the revelation that A Whole Life was, but as a chronicler of historical rupture as it pertains to the ordinary man, Seethaler once again proves himself to be the contemporary master.

6. His Bloody Project - Graeme Macrae Burnett
Well nobody saw this one coming. When Team Booker announced its 2016 Long List, a few eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of what appeared to be a not-very-literary thriller. To be honest, most people had simply never heard of the book and didn't know what to make of it. The publisher, for sure, hadn't thought they had a hit on their hands. Within minutes of the announcement, they were out of stock. I was secretly chuffed. I've always had a bit of a soft spot for historical crime fiction and, reading the promotional guff, I got a warm, fuzzy feeling that His Bloody Project might be something akin to Iain Pears's masterpiece of the genre, An Instance of the Fingerpost. Turns out I was right. What an absolute delight this is! Set in rural Scotland and told from a bunch of perspectives - newspaper clippings, doctors' reports, court transcripts, witness interviews and a lengthy written confession - it is the story of sharecropper Roddy MacRae, a seventeen-year-old boy tried for the brutal murder of Lachlan Broad, the domineering bastard who has made his family's life hell. That he killed Broad, as well as his two children, is not in question. But was it the inevitable snap back against the cruel injustice of class subjugation? In that regard, I was truly rooting for the kid - the dastardly schemes Broad concocts to fuck him and his father over were often painful to read. But there was another possible motive. Maybe it was a crime of passion fuelled by sexual jealousy and the humiliation of rejection? After all, MacRae loved Broad's daughter but she had publicly rebuffed his advances at the local fair. Burnett leaves it sufficiently ambiguous so that you'll have to draw your own conclusion. I'm still not sure. Bloody brilliant.

5. The Children's Home by Charles Lambert
And the award for outright weirdest book of the year goes to Charles Lambert's The Children's Home. Ten months after having finished it I'm still none the wiser as to what the fuck it actually was. But confound me as it did, it remains one of the best books I read this year. Okay, slight caveat before you have a go at it: I love a book that unsettles and discombobulates me. And I have a thing for creepy children, hermits and the suggestion of war in seemingly dystopian counter-futures. I don't, however, think I've ever read a book that got the mix quite as right as this. The appearance of the strange kids at the secluded house of some weird Phantom of the Opera-like guy totally sucked me in. Even if his name was Morgan. Why were they there? Who was he? And what was all this about other children appearing and disappearing around the house? And those wax dolls in the attic... WHAAAAT? The arrival of government agents to question Morgan about the children (Morgan, of course, doesn't come down to talk to them, leaving it instead to another creepy character - his doctor) only makes it more unsettling. Is he some kind of monster? Has he killed the other children? Is the house haunted by their ghosts? It all takes a turn when one of the children is taken away and Morgan finally leaves the house to confront his sister who, we learn, might be the fascist leader of the war-torn land. To get a better sense, check out my review. Or just throw yourself into its house of mirrors. Amazing.

4. The North Water by Ian McGuire
Rumour has it that 2017 will finally bring us the release of Cormac McCarthy's new novel, The Passenger. Then again, the same rumour floated about for 2014, 2015 and 2016. Still, we live in hope. In the meantime, I spend my days looking for McCarthy methadone - novels that might not quite be what I really want but are enough for the fix I need. This year, that book was without a doubt Ian McGuire's brutal novel of despair and survival on the high seas, The North Water. You need only read the first twenty pages to get a sense of what you're in for. Henry Drax - the best bad guy I've read in ages - beats one man to death then bashes and rapes a young boy, all the while revelling in his villainy. When he signs on to the crew of a whaling ship, you know it ain't going to fare well. Enter Patrick Sumner - troubled former army surgeon with a few bloodstains on his lily-white soul - seeking a means of escaping his past and making amends. He's also on the ship. Shit's about to get real. It's not hard to find connections between The North Water and Moby Dick. Both are ostensibly about whaling expeditions gone awry without really being about that at all. In that sense, The North Water is the book Melville might have written if he were a perverted sadist who hated the world (but loved Joseph Conrad). That's a compliment, by the way. The North Water is a cataclysmic showdown between good and evil, pitting one of the nastiest sons o' bitches you'll ever meet against a man seemingly not cut out for the job of stopping him. Add to it a quite brilliant underlying conspiracy - it is set, after all in the dying days of the whale oil trade where former magnates are looking for ways to get out - and a cast of truly memorable characters and you've got one hell of a good book. How it didn't end up on the Booker shortlist is beyond me. I'm just going to go ahead and say it: it should have won.

3. Shelter by Jung Yun
Last year I, along with many others, had my heart smashed into little pieces, fed to a pack of wolves, shat out and thrown into a vat of acid by Hanya Yanagihara's magnificent novel, A Little Life. Just when I thought it was safe to open a book again, along comes Jung Yun with her debut novel, Shelter, and forces me to drink that acid through a barbed wire straw. Set in the wake of the America's 2008 housing crisis, it initially lulls you into thinking it's a novel of familial obligation and the immigrant experience. Kyung Cho, a young biology professor with a wife and infant child, is meeting a real estate agent to talk through selling a house he can't afford. It is an admission of failure, one that Cho struggles to reconcile with his sense of dignity and his family's expectations. Mid-meeting, his mother, Mae, appears in the backyard, naked and bloodied. What the fuck? Something bad has happened at her home, a violent attack. She has escaped. Cho's father, Jin, is still there. When the dust settles, it is clear that Mae and Jin can no longer live in their home. Cho asks them to move in. What was already a tense familial situation - money woes have brought Cho and his wife to the brink - just got a whole lot worse. As the novel unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Cho and his parents weren't exactly the happy family either. Indeed, Jin was an abusive monster, a dictatorial autocrat in his own home and now, in the wake of the attack, unable to cope with the diminution of his authority. He has been humiliated. And it doesn't make for a smooth recovery or some kind of family healing. Reading Shelter is a harrowing experience. You might well be traumatised. But as a slice of modern American life it is right up there with Yanagihara as a contemporary classic.

2. The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
So here's the deal. You open your book with pickles and you are pretty much assured of landing in my Top 10. Start waxing theoretical in ways I don't understand but that still make me laugh and we're talking Top 5. Make me think I get physics while thoroughly enmeshing me in the intergenerational shenanigans of a truly eccentric family (and chucking in a few great barbs about Orson Scott Card and L. Ron Hubbard to boot) and BAM, you almost land top spot. The Lost Time Accidents is a big book in every conceivable way. Bursting with ideas, social commentary, historical trivia and enough narrative verve to power a small country, it's the kind of novel that will completely consume you. As you navigate its time-travelling, genre-flipping, mind-bending, side-splitting pages, you'll find yourself thinking about it almost every waking moment. And once you're done, you'll think about it even more. In my original review I likened it to Michael Chabon's masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. A few months of stewing on it and my enthusiasm hasn't dampened in the slightest. In terms of pure enjoyment, this was my favourite book of the year. Come back tomorrow to see what knocked it off the top spot.

Books I Can't Wait To Read in 2017

on Thursday, December 29, 2016
Gird your loins, Litnerds... Here come these beauties:

2016 In Review: Best of Bridesmaids

on Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Dateline: December 28.

Progress: 94 books. 51 published in 2016. 43 published in other years.

I'm writing from deep inside my reading hidey-hole, having just done the spectacularly stupid thing of starting a 400 page novel. I no longer hold on to hope. This could well be my last missive. I've seen The Blair Witch Project. Still, I must press on. There are books to laud, for Godsakes.

I've been playing with my top ten for almost a month now. The top four or five were clear but after that there were quite a few novels that contended for list space. Had I written this yesterday it might have been different. The day before and it'd have been different again. But there comes a time I have to commit these things to the screen (well, that felt weird to write), so big cheers to the following books that just missed out.

Good People by Nir Baram
Although Baram has published three novels in his native Israel and been translated widely in Europe and South America, Good People is the first book to make it into English. A morally complex tour-de-force, it dares to suggest that those caught up in the early stages of the Nazi and Stalinist machinery, the lesser cogs, might actually have believed that they were being good citizens without necessarily subscribing to the underlying ideology. Our views, after all, are shaped by the societies in which we live. And we all look for how we might utilise our skills to get ahead. In some ways, I was reminded of The Conformist by Alberto Moravia or The Erl-King by Michel Tournier. But Baram is much more subtle - his characters are not monsters. And for that they are even more frightening because in them we just might see ourselves.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
I'm a sucker for a slim hardcover volume. Throw an intriguing cover and a title referencing classical literature (here it's Emily Dickinson) into the mix and I'm pretty much anyone's. If you love to hold a beautiful book, run out now and get your hands on Max Porter's debut. If you're at all skeptical about what lies between the covers, let me assure you: this is a stunning piece of fiction. You will come to treasure it both as object and as a reading experience. Be warned: it is strange and experimental. It tackles the concepts of grief and consolation in an entirely original way - flitting between a husband in mourning, his two young children and a straight-up weird black crow that swoops in and out of the narrative to give its surreal observations. But persevere and you will be rewarded with a unique meditation on what it means to lose someone you love and how you might find your way back to life without them.

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
There is no living author that I admire more than J.M. Coetzee. That said, I have had a rather equivocal relationship with his post-South Africa novels. Each of them have moments but nothing stands alongside Waiting For The Barbarians, The Life and Times of Michael K., or Disgrace. When Coetzee put out his last novel, The Childhood of Jesus, I was cautiously optimistic. It seemed suitably intriguing - an immigrant/refugee narrative shot through a prism of Kafkaesque refraction. That Australia, Coetzee's home since 2006, was failing dismally in the humanitarian treatment of its refugees made me think that Coetzee had once again found a cause to fire up his writing. As it turns out, Childhood was okay. In fact, it had one of the best few first chapters of any of his novels. Then it kind of wandered off into nowheresville. When I heard that his next novel was going to be a sequel, I wasn't sure what to think. Expectation management dictated that I not get my hopes up. But heck, it's Coetzee. What chance did I have? I begged my publisher for an advance copy and the day it arrived in the mail I locked myself away and began to read. Well... what can I say? The Schooldays of Jesus was about as close to a return to form as I ever could have hoped. Gone was the twee obiter that let down Childhood. In its place was a sinister, powerful vivisection of the outer limits of obsession and loyalty. It was an unexpected turn from Coetzee but a very welcome one. The ending was left open. I look forward to a third instalment.

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
How to convey the extraordinary power of this short novel without giving too much away? The clue, I suppose, is in the title. Set mostly in a Tamil refugee camp that is repeatedly attacked by government forces, The Story of A Brief Marriage wastes no time in depicting the horrors of war. Mutilated children, the starving, the hopeless and, of course, the defiant. Amongst it all, people go about trying to salvage something from the carnage. They must, after all, live their lives. And so it is we meet Dinesh and Ganga, two young people brought together by a father's desperate opportunism. They are married without fanfare and stumble uneasily into the roles of husband and wife. Theirs are the struggles of any young couple but magnified and disfigured by extreme circumstance. At times it is excruciating to witness but there are also moments of great tenderness, even humour. The Story of a Brief Marriage is a devastating novel but, as we watch the destruction in Aleppo unfold on our televisions, an altogether necessary one. It is, when all is said and done, the story of our times.

The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam
I've always been a fan of Steven Amsterdam's work but this might just be his most daring and successful novel to date. Courageous, morally challenging, wise and thoroughly entertaining, The Easy Way Out is the novel Don DeLillo could only wish to have written instead of that tripe Zero K. Like Delillo's novel, it is set in an alternative near-future, both instantly familiar and subtly unsettling. Also like Zero K, much of The Easy Way Out takes place in an assisted dying facility. However, where Amsterdam's book really outshines Delillo's is in the depth of its understanding, its empathy, its ability to meaningfully engage with the blurry ethical lines of helping someone die. What, ask Amsterdam, are the limits of advocacy? That he does so within the context of a book that is fun, action-packed and kind of sexy is quite the achievement. Amsterdam always impresses. Here he astonishes.


Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. Having never really rated Swift, I was throughly charmed by this lovely little book about a young maid and her brief dalliance with the boss's son. It wouldn't be British if he wasn't about to be married but the sting in the novel's tail lies very much in the girl's development into a writer of some renown and her obsessive return to the moment that changed her life. Brilliant meta-fiction in disguise.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. How many Booker loyalists were repulsed by this bleak gem? It's dark and gritty and doesn't pull any punches. Eileen is a singularly pitiful character and her unwitting complicity in an act of shocking violence and betrayal plays out like a train crash. But Moshfegh is a superb writer who knows just when to pull the right string. You'll hate the world a little more after you've finished, but that's okay. It's worth it.

The Latecomer by Dimitri Verhulst. Consistently wacky and macabre, Verhulst is becoming a bit of a regular on my end of year lists. This time round sees him tackling the question of ageing, in particular the existential dread that comes with the realising you might no longer be relevant. Désiré, a retired librarian, decides to fake dementia to get himself into a care facility. It can't end well. It doesn't. Great book.

2016 In Review: The Shelf of Shame

on Friday, December 23, 2016
Maybe it's the embarrassingly small number of books I've actually read this year (just clocked over the 90 mark, still hoping against hope to hit 100). Maybe it's my impending metamorphosis from reviewer to reviewed. Maybe it's just a food coma from nervous/festive eating. Whatever, I'm changing up this year's Shelf of Shame. No longer will I choose a Worst Book of the Year. The idea is rubbish anyway - I have a highly selective sample and to tar one with such a shitty epithet seems undignified when, in the real world of books, I'm sure there are far, far worse. Also, I've been a little out of touch with the literary hype machine so I can't pick a 'Most Overhyped'. Instead, I'm going to keep it simple. A bunch of books I am ashamed not to have read and a few books that truly disappointed me. Hopefully even in this pared down form, I can still piss off someone.

A slow reading year means a shelf overflowing with unread books. And while I subscribe to Umberto Eco's theory of the anti-library (the unread books on your shelf are just as, if not more, important than the ones you have read), I can't help but feel somewhat guilty at not having had the chance to get to some of these. Needless to say, there are a ton more books I would have loved to get through this year but these are the standouts (along with the new ones from Zadie Smith and Sebastian Barry, neither of which I've had the chance to buy yet):

2016 saw new novels from some pretty heavy hitters. For the most part I was impressed, if not bowled over. Michael Chabon charmed me with Moonglow. Sure, it was no Kavalier and Clay but it was fun, inventive and quite heartwarming. China Mieville gave us two short bursts of typically oddball flair with This Census Taker and The Last Days of New Paris. J.M. Coetzee returned to form with the dark and mesmerising The Schooldays of Jesus. And Colson Whitehead hit it out of the park with The Underground Railroad. Expect to see a few of these on my Best Of lists next week.

Alas, 2016 was somewhat less successful for five of my favourite authors who, it pains me to say, produced books that ranged from decidedly average to outright bad.

I'm not sure why I still get excited by a new Don DeLillo book. He hasn't produced anything great since his 1997 masterpiece, Underworld (though, to be fair, preceding that DeLillo managed the almost unthinkable, churning out a string of novels that could all lay claim to that title - White Noise, Libra, Mao II). Still, reading the promo guff on his new novel, Zero K, I was cautiously optimistic. Would it be the DeLillo of yesteryear, riffing on the possibility of eternal life? Or would it be his Philip Roth-like navel gazing grumble about getting old? Well, wouldn't you know it, it was both. Zero K started brilliantly. DeLillo created an entirely convincing world in which cryogenic freezing is a real option and where people meaningfully confronted the terror of premature death with the benefit of an existential safety net. Bang on, Don. Bang on. Then, of course, it all went to shit. The book became a plodding mess of melodramatic masturbation. And then it just got boring. It seemed that DeLillo himself had grown bored with the whole thing. Of course it's possible that he simply realised that the terrifying near-futures he once so presciently predicted have become our modern reality. Or, to put it another way, the man who once was our prophet has been relegated to the role of contemporary historian. And for that DeLillo is just not cut out.

Speaking of old codgers navel-gazing (well, actually, gazing a few inches south of the navel), Ismail Kadare followed up his astonishing short novel The Fall of the Stone City with unfortunate nad-fondling in A Girl In Exile. I'd have thought a sojourn into the whole "author obsesses over girl who likes his work" thing beneath him but even with the quite intriguing frame of forbidden books, secret messages and meta-narratives Kadare didn't manage to say anything of particular note with this one. To be sure, it was no The Humbling (quite possibly the most embarrassing 'old man book by a great author' of all time) but it was an unfortunate misstep nonetheless.

Holy crap, I'm segueing like nobody's business here. Just as I mentioned the whole framing thing, it jumps from behind the curtain to reveal itself as the achilles heel of two of my favourite authors. Ian McEwan ruined a deliciously sinister tale of jealousy and murder with the spectacularly clunky conceit of having a foetus narrate the tale. Plenty of critics thought it delightful and playful. I thought it was lame. I'm all for the suspension of disbelief, but ask me to be an outright idiot and I raise the middle finger to you, good sir. Given that the actual story this bag of unformed meat matter told us was so vintage McEwan, so reminiscent of The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, I am forced to raise the second hand, too. Following The Children's Act, you're at two strikes now, dude. Shape up.

A framing device was also the undoing of perennial B4BW fave David Grossman in A Horse Walks Into A Bar. As the title suggests, the novel is about a stand-up comic and takes place over the course of a single performance in which he falls apart on stage while telling the story of his life. As a tale of broken young adulthood, the book is really powerful. It's sad and disconcertingly familiar - we all knew a kid like Dovaleh and probably teased him at some point. That Dovaleh happened to have been a child in Israel immediately after the Holocaust and lived in the shadow of his parents' trauma only compounded the ordinary tribulations of childhood. It's not hard to see why he became a comedian. Unfortunately, that is where the novel really stumbles. Whenever Grossman goes into the joke-telling passages, the gags are uniformly crusty and old. You'll have heard them all before. And they weren't funny the first time. Maybe that was the point. I'm not sure. But even if it was, it is more off-putting than anything else which is a shame, really. A Horse Walks Into a Bar is the best book of my disappointing reads, but following on from To The End of the Land and Falling Out of Time it is greatly disappointing nonetheless.

The same cannot be said of Rabih Alameddine's snorefest, The Angel of History. Holy In and Out Burger, what was he thinking? I'd have hoped that Alameddine, who proved so adept at tackling big issues in the past, might have brought something new to his chronicle of the 1980s AIDS epidemic but, cloak it as he tried with a kind of cool conceit - Satan and Death battle it out over the soul of Jacob (a gay, Yeminite poet living in San Francisco) while Jacob's cat Behemoth watches on -, it was a plodding mess of a book that broke my heart for all the wrong reasons. All I could think of as I trudged my way through its treacly pages was the sheer delight of Aaliya, the narrator of Alameddine's revelation of a novel, An Unnecessary Woman. We learn of Jacob's friends and lovers, we learn of his prostitute mother who gave him away in the hope of a giving him a better life as well as his father - a wealthy client - who promises the world and turns his back on both woman and child. Heck, we learn any number of stories that ought to have moved me more than they did. But it is all a bit too overcooked to lift beyond mere sentimentality and by the end I felt that it had gone nowhere. I'll put it down to a misstep. And I might just go back to Aaliya. And Alameddine's hilarious impersonation of her. God I love him.

2016 in Review: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Monday, December 19, 2016
Having resigned myself to coming in under a ton (books, not weight) this year, I still find myself trying to balance reading like a bat out of hell and working on the edit of The Book of Dirt. Gotta love competing deadlines. If I can get in four more books before the end of the year I'll be happy. If I get the next draft of the novel done, my publisher will be happy. Better off disappointing both, right? (Kidding, I'll get both done*). In the meantime, I've put my time to extra good use by taking on another task - my end of year lists. Enough with the dilly dallying, then. Let's get going.


The Door by Magda Szabo
If I ever decided to write a definitive Top 10 Books of All Time, I can I assure you of two things. First, it will contain about 47 books. Secondly, Magda Szabo's magnificent novel, The Door, would be in the top 25. With all due respect to the book that I will name as my Book of the Year, this was, without a doubt, the best thing I read in 2016. A stunning meditation on human dignity, it completely wrong-foots the reader before unfurling into a compelling character study of the crotchety, uncouth and entirely misunderstood cleaning lady, Emerence. It is, of course, the story of a relationship, a friendship borne of servitude that is turned on its head by tragic circumstance. Szabo packs the narrative with all manner of emotion-bombs but never strays into the realm of crass sentimentality. It is a masterful act to behold and a deeply moving one to read. Over the next week I'll rattle off a whole bunch of excellent books that totally captivated me but if you only take one recommendation from all that follows, let it be this one. The Door is a singular reading experience.

Burning In by Mireille Juchau
Mireille Juchau has long existed on the periphery of my reading radar. It almost embarrasses me to admit that it took moderating a panel on which she was to appear for me to actually get around to reading her. If Burning In, her last novel with Giramondo before being picked up by Bloomsbury, is anything to go by, she will fast become one of my favourite Australian writers. Centred around the disappearance of a child in New York's Central Park, Burning In is a profound vivisection of the mother daughter relationship. The child's loss causes Australian photographer Martine Hartmann to reassess her difficult relationship with her own mother, Lotte. The mystery of the disappearance quickly takes a backseat to Martine's struggle to reconcile her own grief with that of Lotte's. As we soon learn, Lotte lost most of her family in the Holocaust and is herself a survivor. The emotional wounds have yet to scar; they remain fresh, raw, oozing. Juchau's almost obsessive fixation on the image and object as vehicles for memory, especially when rendered in her almost classically beautiful prose, makes for remarkable reading. As for the panel... Let's just say I bumbled my way through. Juchau, on the other hand, was a star.

The Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
I don't think I read a more prophetic book this year than Vásquez's novel of morality and journalistic responsibility. In this new era of post-truth, we're often left to wonder what consequences any media report might have. Vásquez compounds the question with a difficult detail: unverifiable truth. What happens when you report an allegation (as opposed to an established fact) to the extreme detriment of a public figure? Is it any different if it's the kind of allegation that cannot be verified? On the other hand, does the reporter have a responsibility to report irrespective of potential outcome, particularly in a society where truth is routinely suppressed? In The Reputations, renowned Columbian cartoonist Mallarino is about to be honoured with a lifetime award for his fearlessness in the face of an oppressive (now overthrown) dictatorship. At the ceremony he is confronted by a young woman posing as a journalist. She is, in fact, a former friend of his daughter's who, as a child, might have been abused by a senator at a party in Mallarino's house. Mallarino's outing of the incident (he chose to believe the allegation without any attempt at substantiating it) led to the minister's suicide and, ultimately, the cartoonist's crisis of faith. Clumsy missteps aside (Mallarino's attempts to reconcile the girl and the senator's wife are kind of far-fetched), The Reputations is a short, searing novel of considerable depth and moral power.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
Critics hailed Aziz, an Egyptian journalist, artist and commentator, as some kind of Arab Kafka for this surreal dystopian novel. And while I'm always suss about any Kafka comparison, it's not hard to see why. The Queue is a strange, unsettling book about a country where all questions of consequence are directed to a centralised authority known as The Gate. Nobody knows when, if at all, The Gate opens so they stand in an ever-growing line hoping to be let in. Through the various supplicants, Aziz tells the story of a broken society, desperate for freedom and some form of clarity. With touches of Orwell, Huxley and Sorokin to boot, The Queue gives us an unparalleled insight into life in any number of Middle Eastern countries in the lead-up to the Arab Spring.


Came for the pictures, stayed for the words...


In 2014 my top 10 had 21 albums. Last year it had 24. Just to maintain the consistency of number creep, I've upped it again by three, leaving my Top 10 at a slightly bloated 27. Some pretty regular bands haven't made it, simply because they plopped out unexpected stinkers into the porcelain listening bowl. Yep, I'm looking at you Kaiser Chiefs, Green Day, Hot Hot Heat and Ida Maria.... Also, passable but underwhelming efforts by NOFX (crucify me), Metalicca, Protest The Hero, Biffy Clyro, The Living End and Jimmy Eat World made for an easy cull. I don't really know why I stopped at 27, though. I enjoyed albums by Avenged Sevenfold, Sum 41, Against Me, Get Dead, Blink 182, Camp Cope, Nick Cave and Violent Soho. Maybe I just got lazy. Whatever. Here's what I loved, randomly stopped for no good reason at:

27. Nerd Herder - Rockingham
26. Face To Face - Protection
25. Travis - Everything At Once
24. Ignite - A War Against You
23. Lady Gaga - Joanne
22. The Cult - Hidden City
21. Weezer - White Album
20. In Flames - Battles
19. PUP - The Dream Is Over
18. The Descendents - Hypercaffium Spazzinate
17. Ben Lee - Freedom, Love and Recuperation of the Human Mind
16. The Frights - You Are Going to Hate This
15. Vinnie Caruana - Survivors Guilt
14. Brutal Youth - Sanguine
13. Venerea - Last Call For Aderall
12. PEARS - Green Star
11. The Interrupters - Say It Out Loud

We interrupt this program to bring you another important list. 2016 was, without doubt, the year of the EP. Some of my absolute favourite music came out in short form. So, breaking with tradition, here's a shout out in no particular order to Hi-Standard (welcome back!!), G.L.O.S.S. (R.I.P.), Morning Glory, Death By Stereo, Ghost, Mobina Galore, Masked Intruder, Guttermouth and Letters to Cleo.


10. Tie - Jeff Rosenstock - Worry?, Joyce Manor - Cody
I don't know whether it's the earnest dorkiness or the jagged pop songwriting genius, but there is an unmistakeable synergy between Jeff Rosenstock and Joyce Manor. Rosenstock followed his standout 2015 album, Are We Cool?, with what you could quite easily call its more reflective companion piece while Joyce Manor also dialled it down from their 2014 corker, Never Hungover Again, to bring us a fun, but thoughtful burst of punk goodness.

9. Dan Vapid - All Wound Up
Can't say I ever thought I'd have a kids' album in my top ten but former Screeching Weasel guitarist Dan Vapid's collection of punk choons for little ears was wonderfully refreshing and silly. Really, it's just a bunch of Ramonesy/Weaselly songs with lyrics about robots and fire engines which, now I think about it, makes it a typical Ramonesy/Weaselly kinda album.

8. March - Stay Put
I was pretty excited when I saw White Lung were putting out a new record. And sure, Paradise was a ripper little album. But the White Lung album I'd hoped for wasn't made by White Lung at all. Instead, I got my fix from a band I'd never heard of before - Netherlands buzzsaws March. It's fast, it's snotty, it's loud and it tears the skin from your face. 'Nuff said.

7. Pulley - No Change In The Weather
It's been 12 years since Pulley put out one of my favourite EpiFat punk albums, Matters. I was pretty skeptical when I heard there was something new in the pipeline. And given that the album came only a month or so after they announced they were making one, it smacked of sad old dudes making shitty music for the sad old dudes who used to listen to them. Ok, I was wrong. Scott and co. sound as fresh and pumped to play music as they did when I last heard them. Alas, I am still a sad old dude.

6. Taking Back Sunday - Tidal Wave
Straw poll. Is it okay to say TBS have become good? Should I be declaring this from behind some kind of protective shield? In what might amount to the blogging world's equivalent of a naked walk of shame through a nunnery, I'm just going to admit it. I loved this album. Incredibly catchy songs delivered with completely unexpected flair. Yes, I hate myself a bit.

5. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
Pretty much everyone who has made a list thus far has put David Bowie's Blackstar in their top ten for 2016. And yeah, as parting gifts go it was something to behold. But I couldn't ever quite shake the feeling that, once you strip away the wonder of its genesis, it was little more than a fascinating art project. In terms of profundity and heartache, I'd take Leonard Cohen's swan song any day. A collection of dark, melancholic yet still hopeful songs, You Want It Darker is about as perfect an album as the gravelled troubadour ever made. I'd put it up there with The Future, Songs From a Room and I'm Your Man.

4. Angel Du$t - Rock The Fuck On Forever
Fast. Abrasive. Ugly. No album swung more clumsily or punched harder this year. Truly a revelation.

3. Say Yes - Real Life Trash Mag
Whenever a band boasts "ex-members of..." I usually run the opposite direction. The only thing that makes me run faster is when the ex-member is from a band I didn't particularly like. Luckily, I had no idea that Say Yes had former Alexisonfire drummer Jordan Hastings in the line-up when I first heard the album. I just liked the weird cover art. Three songs in and I was a bona fide fan. I had to know everything about this band. I wanted posters on my wall. I... Oh... Ok, so I still don't like Alexisonfire but this album is a riot of angular hooks, sleaze, abrasiveness and madcap creativity. Get it in your ears.

2. Sixx:AM - Prayers For The Damned/Prayers For The Blessed
Technically it's two albums, but the this year's Sixx:AM double shot is best listened to as one bombastic masterpiece. Think Saints of Los Angeles-era Motley Crüe (once they became seriously good) with a less annoying singer and you've pretty much nailed the Prayers cycle. It's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of giving myself to something so self-consciously over the top and I gotta say it felt pretty incredible. 2016 might have claimed the Crüe but so long as Nikki Sixx is still doing this kind of thing, I'm kind of okay with that. Out to pasture, Mr. Neil.

1. Tie: Plow United - Three, Useless ID - State is Burning
OK, so I've cheated again but I really couldn't pick between these two astounding albums. Given that I kind of I make the rules on B4BW, I can do whatever I want. Yay me. So, without further ado...

I'd never heard Plow United before this, their (I'm told) long awaited reunion album. I don't even know what possessed me to listen to it. But sometimes, the best albums are sirens - they call you to them unwittingly, lead you to crash joyously on their rocks. Three is an unassuming, stripped back masterpiece of heartfelt, speedy pop delivered with a rare kind of passion and honesty.

Useless ID, on the other hand, are a band I know very well. They've always rocked and are top dudes to boot. Twenty-odd years into their career, they have stunned (in the very best way) their fans with their most aggressive, political album ever; an album that teeters between despair and hope, anger and love without ever losing focus on melody or heart. It's a magnificent collision of everything that matters about punk rock. For what it's worth, I have to say that there really is nothing like seeing friends make the album you've always suspected that they had in them; the kind of album that is objectively your equal-favourite album of the year.

* Obligatory reassurance in case my editor reads this crap.

2016 Year In Review: A Short List of Lists (And a Bit of an Announcement)

on Thursday, December 8, 2016
*Tap tap*


*Tap tap tap*

Is this thing on?...

(Sound of throat clearing)

Why do I feel like I'm starting from scratch, calling out across an empty auditorium?

I suppose 2016 wasn't quite the grand blogging year I'd anticipated. Nor was it the greatest reading year I've had. A week into December and I'm only at 85 books. Don't think I'll be hitting the ton this time round. Granted, I have a decent excuse for once. I didn't read and I didn't blog because, after seven years of half-arsed effort, I decided 2016 was the year I'd finish my novel. And so I cut myself off from the world and wrote, wrote, wrote until... Holy shit, I actually finished it. Yep, the beast that started with my story Crumbs all those years ago (see sidebar for link) has grown into something quite beyond what I'd intended or imagined. I really didn't think I'd see the day. Nor, I dare say, did my publisher who took a big risk on a long, complex and difficult book at a very early stage and would have been well justified in regretting it by now. But, lo and behold, it is done and we've begun the editorial process which, I have to say, is super exciting and a whole new experience for me.

I'm thrilled now to finally announce that in September 2017 The Book of Dirt will be published by my all-time dream publisher, home of so many of my favourite authors (both local and international), Text Publishing. Of course, the big question now is on which arm will I get their logo tattooed? I'm thinking between the paw prints and the Shalom tatt. Seems fitting.

Ok, so now I've got that out of my system it's time to do what I love to do most - crap on about books I've read. Sure, I might not have updated this blog all that much but I have read a few books and have the usual semi-informed opinions about them. Which means I can close out the year with my usual lists of rants and raves. As always, I'm setting myself a bunch of rolling deadlines to make sure I actually do it. So here goes, the order of lists and the dates on which they'll appear:

December 19: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

December 23: The Shelf of Shame

December 28: The Best of Bridesmaids

December 29: The Final Countdown

December 31: Bait For Bookworms Book of 2016

The Man Booker Prize 2016: A Last Minute Form Guide to the Blah Booker

on Monday, October 24, 2016
In what will no doubt be remembered - if it is remembered at all - as the least exciting literary race in recent times, the ragged drayhorses of the Booker Prize field are now lurching their way to the October 25 finish line. Yes, like Steve Bradbury before them, one will whoosh past the more deserving contenders - some who were long listed, some who were overlooked entirely - to snatch a spanking new doorstop to show off to their friends. Even my most rabid bookish mates have wandered off to more interesting pastures - I think the most anyone I know has read of the shortlist is four. Sucker is me, then. I've read them all. And I'm here to ramble my way through a form guide so you don't have to bother. Let me say at the outset, they're all pretty good books. I just don't see any particularly worthy of something so prestigious as the Booker. Well, except maybe one. But, in the year that the Nobel committee proved that prestige counts for jack shit, someone is going to be pretty bloody pleased that they kicked Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee, Michael Chabon, Ali Smith, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Lethem and Zadie Smith's arses. So here's my take.

A Literary Safe Space
Booker is notorious for its literary conservatism so, as always, the more traditional type books sit atop the bookmaker's tables as close favourites*. Madeleine Thien is, perhaps surprisingly, outright top of the list at 2/1 with her epic family saga, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It's a big and quite lovely book, riffing on the continuity of family through generations, particularly in the face of violent oppression and major societal change. Set mostly through the transitional Mao/Deng period of China and culminating in the Tiananmen Square Massage of 1989, it does not shy away from the brutality and degradation suffered by the "average" Chinese citizen. To me its greatest strength lay in its complexity - it was quite the moral challenge to make sense of characters who went from victims to collaborators to saviours. Thien is a fine, old school writer and this is sure to satisfy the casual reader. I suppose that makes it the safe choice for Team Booker. It's also the boring one. Deborah Levy gets her second chance at a Booker with Hot Milk, another charming (if creepy) addition to what has become a greatly admirable body of work. There are a lot of people who think she should have won it for Swimming Home but I think this is probably the better book. A daughter takes her ailing mother to a seaside Spanish village in search of miracle cure from a patently quackish doctor. It is a steaming, steamy novel - unsettling in its depiction of the tensions between the two women but even more so in its exploration of sexuality and desire. To me there was a distinctly Muriel Sparkish undertone. Think The Driver's Seat, if you will (there was even a stalkerish observer who intruded on the narrative to make sinister observations). I was waiting for a last minute suckerpunch and, although it never came, I closed the book with a sense of satisfaction and damp, sweaty palms. The bookies have Levy at 3/1. The track record for consolation Bookers has me rating it a decent chance. My love for the underdog (see below) kind of hopes it doesn't.

Barbarians at the Gate
This is the third year in which American novels have been eligible for Booker glory and this time round we have two rather unexpected contenders hobbling along the track. Paul Beatty's decidedly loopy comedy The Sellout has already picked up a fair few accolades (most notably the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award) and found itself on pretty much everyone's Best of 2015 list. Everyone but me, that is. As I said in my end of year wrap up, it's a good book with a genius premise and some truly brilliant comic moments but I couldn't help but feel that it overstayed its welcome. Beatty deserves laudatory attention just for the size of his cojones - it takes some massive ones to write about an African American guy attempting to bring back segregation in his neighbourhood and taking on a slave. He's also has a knack for outright hilarity. Every scene with the guy's inventor father is a comedic gem. There is, of course, a much darker side to the book. The Sellout has proven to be incredibly prescient and even necessary in the wake of the Ferguson riots and the frighteningly regressive racial tensions (hello, Trump and his basket of deplorables - special shoutout to the rednecks). Whether it has the legs to bag a Booker has yet to be seen but to my mind it is objectively the strongest contender. The punting public seems to think otherwise. Beatty is sitting at 6/1. The second American entry is even more unsettling - probably the bleakest novel ever to grace a Booker Prize shortlist and the only work likely to knock Ann Enright's The Gathering from its long standing throne of Booker bleakness. Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen is misery porn at its best. Eileen herself is a stunningly realised character - young, working in a boy's prison, single and brimming with self-loathing, she is equal parts tragedy and repulsive failure. Living with her abusive alcoholic father she dreams of physical intimacy (something that appears to have taken the place of "belonging" in her dreams), with the subject of her feelings shifting from person to person until it lands upon a mysterious new girl who comes to work at her prison and seems oddly obsessed with one particular prisoner. Don't look for redemption in this book. It will crush you like a coackroach and smear the muck of your carapace across a shit-stained toilet cubicle. But don't count it out either. The bookies have it as the rank outsider at 8/1. I think it stands a much better chance than punters seem to credit. You could stand to win quite a bit of money by backing it.

The Best Bet Outsider
Leaving Moshfegh aside, there's one other book that strikes me as The Little Engine That Could of Booker 2016. I was quick to dismiss Graeme Macrae Burnett's His Bloody Project as the token genre nomination, not to mention the token Small Press nomination. Then I read it. Wowee. It's a bloody (excuse the pun) excellent read. Indeed, to me it's the most enjoyable, thought provoking and straight-up good book on the shortlist. Of course, I'm one for historical fiction, but even objectively speaking Burnett's chain-of-voices device really works in depicting the injustice of the old Scottish feudal system. Centred around the confession of a young crofter, Roderick Macrae, who killed the oppressive town constable, Lachlan Broad, and two of Broad's children, Burnett also provides us with newspaper clippings from the day, a psychological report and a chronicle of the trial. The genius of the novel lies in its ultimate opacity - it's never entirely clear why Macrae murdered Broad. Sure, the constable was an evil, vindictive arsehole who picked on Macrae and his father, but there is suggestion of a sexual motive as well, not to mention a few other possibilities. We as readers are left to ponder and, I assure you, ponder you shall. As a snapshot of class injustice and the development of Commonwealth law in the 1800s, His Bloody Project is absolutely spot on. As an historical mystery (whydunnit more than whodunnit), it's my favourite since Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost. As a top quality triumph for independent publishing, it is my absolute favourite on the list. As a potential winner, at 4/1, it's a damn good bet.

And You Thought Novellas Were Contentious
Remember when the literary blogosphere went apeshit about Ian McEwan winning for Amsterdam? Then even more apeshit when On Chesil Beach was shortlisted (hopefully McEwan wasn't taking it personally)? Then Julian Barnes took it with a paltry 160 pages for The Sense of an Ending and the gloves were off. How can a novella win the Commonwealth's most prestigious literary prize? Well, step aside amateurs. If you thought length was an issue, then how about form? It would take a spectacularly generous soul to call David Szalay's All That Man Is a novel. It is, to put it bluntly, nine thematically linked short stories. None of them share characters. None of them cross over on plot. It's just a bunch of geographically dislocated losers meditating on their shitty lives and the mistakes they've made. The stories are good. Really good, in fact. But they do not, in any way I can tell, make up a novel. So here's the question. Do we just give it a leave pass and, like Dylan, say fuck the rules? Does Team Booker crown Szalay king of the novelists and then laugh at us from their crystal palace? The bookmakers give it a 6/1 chance of happening. I'm thinking more about snowflakes and hell.

So there you have it. My 2016 Booker Prize Form Guide. The Cliff Notes Version: It's between Beatty and Burnett, with Levy somewhere in the mix. The Bait For Bookworms Caveat: I've never picked it before.

Place your bets, people.

* All odds are from Ladbrokes as of the morning of Sunday 23 October.

The Nobel Prize 2016: The Fuck You Philip Roth Nobel

on Thursday, October 13, 2016
Ok, well those wacky pranksters at Team Nobel have well and truly punked us all. I was all ready to write how they made an arse out of me for getting the whole date thing wrong then they go and do this: BOB DYLAN! What the actual fuck? Now, I'm a Dylan fan as much as the next guy (I loved him in Pirates of the Caribbean) but, in a world of ever-diminishing giants, why would they give it to the grumpy old troubadour?

If I might put forward a wee theory:

Years ago, the chairman of the Nobel committee totally dissed Philip Roth and American literature in general, proclaiming that the Yanks were all but out of the running. There was, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, something of an outcry. What about McCarthy? Or DeLillo? Or Oates? Or Vollman? or... the list is almost endless. How then to shut up the whingers? Give it to the one guy who has always sat somewhere down the bottom of the betting table but who nobody ever thought stood a genuine chance. It goes to an American of the old guard who isn't Philip Roth. Yes, so far as I can tell, this year's Nobel Prize in Literature was the greatest instance of throwing shade at a single person ever in the history of the prize. It means they don't have to give it to an American for another five or six years, by which time they are counting on Roth having fallen off the perch. Batshit crazy genius!

No doubt there will be a fiery shitstorm in the literary blogosphere. Accusations will be thrown. Questions will be asked. I, of course, only have one question: Will Dylan face the audience when he collects the medal and mumbles his acceptance speech? Recent performances suggest not. At least old Phil won't have to look him in the eye.

Now I'm off to read some Krasznahorkai or Thiong'o. Because in my alternate reality they shared this year's prize. Hoorah!

The Nobel Prize 2016: The One Where I Pick It Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt

on Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Now I am by no means Sherlock Holmes (or Hercule Poirot or even, for that matter, Encyclopaedia Brown) but I deduce me a Nobel Prize announcement in the next 48 hours. It is, of course, Nobel week - those seven days where the word holds its collective breath to laud a bunch of people of whom they've never heard for the discovery of things they can't ever hope to understand. The Swedish Academy has already announced the gongs for Medicine and Physics. The Nobel Prize for Literature is a notoriously secretive affair, so much so that they won't even give us the date of the announcement. But one needn't possess the greatest sleuthing faculties to work it out. Check out the website. Medicine: October 3. Physics: October 4. Chemistry: October 5. Peace: October 7... Wait... What? NOTHING ON OCTOBER 6? Wow. I wonder what that could possibly mean! Of course, there's always the chance of a weekend reveal. The Economics Prize isn't announced until October 10, well after anyone's stopped giving a shit. But recent history suggests that the prize for Literature will be announced before the Peace Prize so that really only leaves one day.

With that rant done and dusted I now move to the likely laureate. Recent form has seen me so ridiculously off the mark that you can probably rule out whoever I pick. Same, I dare say goes for the bookies' odds. Yet again Haruki Murakami tops the list with short odds of 4/1, proving that should the Nobel ever come down to a popular vote, the prize will go to a throughly underserving person. Much like it often does already. I like that there is a bona fide cult of Murakami tragics and that they're willing to lose money every year in the vain hope of someone they think is cool and quirky snaring a slice of literary immortality, but come on. Murakami? Seriously? Adunis is up there again. He's a poet. His odds are 6/1. He stands a chance. If he wins I'll put him on the pile next to Transtromer (you know, the one that looks good on a coffee table but will never actually be opened). Interestingly, Philip Roth has made it up the list to come third in the betting. I'd love to see him win - he has pretty much defined American literature for the past 50 years and, now that he has retired, has plenty of time to polish whatever medals he can add to the trophy cabinet. The Academy openly hates Americans though so he's much more likely to be adding another face to his dartboard come Thursday. The rest of the top 10 is comprised of familiar names: Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Joyce Carol Oates, Ismail Kadare, Javier Marias, Jon Fosse, Ko Un and John Banville (though, to be fair Antunes, Krasznahorkai and Aria have the same odds as Banville, Un and Fosse).

I'd love to see Krasznahorkai win. The guy is an impenetrable genius. Then there's Kadare. Or Marias. Or Kundera. All brilliant. All unlikely to win now that I've singled them out. In that vein, I choose as my final pick Haruki Murakami. He will definitely win. 100%. You know what that means. No need to thank me.

The Booker Prize 2016: F&*$ The Favourites

on Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Well shiver me timbers and blow me down (and something about a bottle of rum... I could do with one of those). Ian McGuire's Cormac-McCarthy-On-The-High-Seas whaling epic has been scuttled in the harbour. Yep, the Booker Prize shortlist is out and my early pick - not to mention the bookies' favourite - didn't make the cut. Neither did JM Coetzee with his return-to-form The Childhood of Jesus or AL Kennedy with her much-lauded Serious Sweet.

If you haven't seen it yet, the six books vying for Booker glory this year are:

Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

I'm in two minds about it all. Might 2017 be the year that Booker broke free of its establishment chains and embraced the exciting underdogs? Or was my first impression when reading the long list right - it is a year that will fade into obscurity? For that matter where's the subcontinent? Where's Africa? Where the bloody hell is Australia?

Of course, I've only read one of the shortlisted books: The Sellout. Beatty has been basking in critical sunshine since its release, already having picked up a fair swag of rave reviews and a trusty old 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. I was only lukewarm on it - the idea of an African American guy trying to reintroduce segregation in his local neighbourhood is pretty funny, and the bits about his batshit crazy father are laugh-out-loud hilarious. However, the novel outstays its welcome, drawing the joke out that little bit too far to pack a knockout punch. Indeed, it was a Dishonourable Mention in my 2015 Most Overrated Books.

I've just started Graeme Macrae Burnet's novel and so far it's pretty cool. Notably, it continues the recent Booker trend of picking outsiders from genre fiction to sit alongside the more nose-in-the-air, port-swilling literary types. Deborah Levy is a bit of a Booker favourite, with her novel Swimming Home getting much love when it was shortlisted back in 2012. Reviews for Hot Milk have been generally positive (though not the slobbering adulation of the other) and I'm wondering whether Levy might be in line for one of those consolation Bookers a la Ian McEwan who won for Amsterdam when they regretted not having given it to him for his masterpiece, Enduring Love. That's not to say Hot Milk may not be deserving in its own right. I just haven't read it yet. Of the others, Szalay and Thien are unknown quantities and, tempting as it is to make wild and loose predictive pontifications (that's why you come here, right?), I might hold off until I've had the chance to give them a proper go.

That leaves Ottessa Moshfegh, the one contender that really interests me. Team Booker mistakenly bill it as her first novel but she did publish a decent length novella (of the kind for which both McEwan and Barnes won Bookers) called McGlue a couple of years back. The book was gritty, unrelenting and bleak yet still possessed of a strangely humorous undercurrent. If it's any indication of what to expect from Eileen, I suspect we have us a pretty strong dark horse.

It remains to be seen whether this really will be the blah-Booker or something completely refreshing. I'm still smarting that Coetzee and McGuire didn't make it but I suppose I now have reason to read three books I'd hoped to avoid. I can only be pleasantly surprised. I'll report back soon with my usual form guide. Until then... did someone say Nobel?

The Miles Franklin Award 2016: AS Patrić's Black Rock White City

on Friday, August 26, 2016
Huzzah! The curse is lifted.

For years I have damned nominees in all manner of literary prizes to the inglorious abyss. Booker. Nobel. Pulitzer. Boroondara Local Library. In all those and more my "prediction" has turned out to be the kiss of death.

But all that ended tonight. I am no longer the kiss of death. I am not even a good bet. I am a fucking oracle. (Or a fluke, but I prefer words with three syllables.) Yes, AS Patrić just won the Miles Franklin, Australia's most prestigious literary award, for my B4BW Book of 2015, Black Rock White City. Just as I predicted. Before it was even published, no less (I read it in manuscript form when it was still called Life On Crumbs). #humblebrag #notevenslightlyhumble

Now I need not fawn again over how bloody great the novel is. If you want sup on some superlative soup then just check out my original review or my Book of the Year citation. I do, however, want to say that is a massive win for quality Australian literature. Great Australian novels are still being written. And noticed.

So congratulations to Alec and his publisher Transit Lounge for the most deserving Miles Franklin of recent times. Rare is the writer who combines such commitment to the craft of writing, generosity of spirit and goodness of heart with the knack for telling a ripper story. Thanks for giving us Black Rock White City. And, on a personal note, thanks for giving me the faith to once again make wildly loose predictions with a newfound sense of purpose and certainty. I may not always be right, but I will never again be in doubt.

The Booker Prize 2016: The Blah Booker... (The Longlist)

on Saturday, July 30, 2016
Trust the first whiff of LitPrize Silly Season to lure me out from my cyber-cave. Yep, my hyperventilating over the senselessly subjective jockeying for literary immortality (yeah, who could possibly forget such classics as Paul Scott's Staying On or anything by Verner Von Heidenstam?) ought now be considered one of life's certainties along with death, taxes and the crushing disappointment of adulthood. It has, of course, been a cold winter so my arthritic bones have taken a little longer to click into gear than they have in the past (apparently, hitting 40 does that to you), but here I am!

And here is the 2016 Man Booker Prize Longlist.

Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) - The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)
A.L. Kennedy (UK) - Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)
Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ian McGuire (UK) - The North Water (Scribner UK)
David Means (US) - Hystopia (Faber & Faber)
Wyl Menmuir (UK) - The Many (Salt)
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) - Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
Virginia Reeves (US) - Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)
Elizabeth Strout (US) - My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)
David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)


Many of us had hoped that, once the fear of the American invasion subsided, the competition would be the great apocalyptic battleground of the English Language NovelTM. Or at least the Gladiator Arena. Turns out it's become little more than a kitchen table thumb wrestle. I usually try to talk it up but even the starry-eyed optimist in me can't get overly excited about this year's crop. First up, the absences. I thought Julian Barnes's latest was quite beautiful and worthy of a longlisting, if not something more. Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon must be smarting - I'd put a buck or two on them considering themselves the rightly winners of the first trans-Pacific Booker. Don Delillo probably couldn't care less which, I suppose is a good thing, because that seemed to be his attitude to the second half of his latest novel, Zero K. And then there's Ian McEwan. In steady decline, he might have been hoping that the forthcoming Nutshell would scoop him from the literary doldrums. His omission from Team Booker's love-in does not bode well.

As for the books that did get a nod, I've read only two. Ian McGuire's The North Water was a mostly riveting collision of Conrad, Melville and McCarthy set on a high seas whaler. It's got one of the best McCarthyesque villains of recent times and, for the most part, it rockets along with admirable vigour. Oddly, though, it peters out and leaves the reader - pardon the pun - cold in its lack of resolve. Paul Beatty's book has been the darling of the American literary world for the better part of a year. It's brash, funny and irreverent. Given the recent spilling over of racial tension in that country, it is also very timely. Anyone who imagines a batshit crazy African American guy's attempt to reintroduce segregation into his neighbourhood and then so deftly does so with tongue-firmly in cheek is deserving of attention. There are parts of The Sellout that are jaw-droppingly great. Anything with the unnamed narrator's father had me on the floor laughing. And some of the satirical barbs were inspired genius. But, much like McGuire's book, I was left a little disappointed by the work as a whole. Maybe it was the hype. Or maybe it's just not quite as good as people say.

As for the rest of the field, I'm very keen to see J.M. Coetzee get another nod. The sequel to his uneven but quite interesting The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus looks to be more Kafkaesque in its execution which can only be a good thing. The first half of Childhood was brilliant in its ability to unsettle and disorient the reader before devolving into ploddy straight narrative. If Schooldays maintains the weird without following its predecessor into the narrative quagmire I suspect we're in for quite a treat. I have high hopes for Deborah Levy, too. She is consistently excellent and has been on the Booker radar before. Ditto A.L. Kennedy who very rarely fails to impress. Of the lesser known names, Ottessa Moshfegh stands out in particular. Though the judges seem to think Eileen is her debut, I was greatly impressed by her actual first novel McGlue with its muscular, rowdy and unflinching energy. I'm also quite the fan of any small press book that bucks the typical literary trends so Graeme MacRae Burnett's crime thriller has piqued my interest. As for the others, hmmmm... I'll give as many of them a go as I can but I somehow think that this ain't going to be remembered as Booker's finest years.

So, back into my cave for now. I'll catch you in a couple of weeks for the announcement of the Miles Franklin Award. It's a great field and, of course, I'm backing AS Patrić, but almost any of the contenders are worthy of the award. At least it's a great year for Australian Literary Prizes. At least we've got that!

The Morning After: Some Thoughts on Elie Wiesel's Lesser-Known Works

on Sunday, July 3, 2016
A stark reminder this morning that we are hurtling towards a post-survivor world: Elie Wiesel has died. Like most Jews of my generation, Wiesel's work was my first true engagement with the Holocaust, especially given that my own grandparents couldn't talk about it. I remember reading Night, arguably his masterpiece (I say arguably only because there are three or so other contenders), and being struck not only by the horrors Weisel depicted, the philosophical depth with which he did so or the beautiful simplicity of his language but also by the fact that he was not much older than me when he experienced them. For a twelve or thirteen year old kid it was a revelation; the moment humanity was unmasked and its ugliest face revealed.

Much will be written about Wiesel in the coming days. Eulogies will abound highlighting his Nobel Prize, his ongoing political and social justice activism, his wisdom and his generosity. I look at the famous picture of him in the Buchenwald concentration camp bunk, a sickly, emaciated teen and wonder whether he could have imagined at that moment the intellectual and moral giant he would become on a world scale. Beyond that, there is little I can add.

I did want to spare a thought, though, for his other books, the ones that weren't Night, Dawn or Day (aka The Night Trilogy). For years I've dipped in and out of his work, feeling the need to hear his voice even when it wasn't at its most eloquent or powerful. Wiesel was by no means a perfect writer. I'm not sure he was even a great writer which is not in any way intended to take away from the fact that he was very much an exemplary human being. It is easy to forget that his Nobel was for Peace not Literature. And so there were a fair few misfires: The Sonderberg Case and The Judges stand out as poorly executed, rather far-fetched attempts to revisit familiar themes while The Hostage suffered as a second rate Death And The Maiden (though kind of inverted). Then there was A Mad Desire To Dance... sigh. Read them only for the sake of completeness. I'll personally come and pin your Wiesel Wizard badge to your chest. If, however, you want to read some quite extraordinary works, grab yourself a copy of his play The Trial of God or the not-too-dissimilarly-themed novel The Gates of the Forest. Also quite brilliant were Wiesel's interpretive works, particularly his takes on classic Hassidic tales (Souls On Fire) and biblical stories (Messengers of God). Should you want something slight but rather lovely, I'd also recommend his short meditation on his heart surgery, Open Heart

I doubt we will know another force of goodness and morality like Elie Wiesel for a very long time. His death is a great loss to humanity, to justice and, yes, to literature. There will be, I'm sure, many ways to remember and honour him. For me, though, the best will always be to read him. He might now have fallen silent but his voice will live on.

2016 Midyear Report: The Life of Brian Redux

on Monday, June 27, 2016
Rumours of my cyberdeath have been greatly exaggerated.

That said, I do feel like the old guy from Monty Python's Life of Brian, slumped over John Cleese's shoulder, protesting my glowing health. "I feel happy! I feel happy! Think I might go for a walk." In my case, of course, replace walk with read but the sentiment stands. Yes, while I have hardly been posting here on B4BW, I'm glad to say that I still have been reading, albeit at a greatly reduced pace from previous years. Thus far, I'm sitting on the miserly total of 44 books. Shameful, I know.

Still, there's been a lot to celebrate in my beloved book hole even if I haven't been shouting it from the rooftops. First up, if I may gloat a little, my favourite book of last year, A. S. Patric's Black Rock White City has been shortlisted for Australia's biggest literary prize, The Miles Franklin Award. I'm glad to see the rest of Australia falling over themselves to heap praise on this truly astonishing novel. Aussie lit is clearly in a good place right now - the whole Miles Franklin field is top notch. On the subject of prizes, I was gratified to see a couple of my favourite novels-in-translation from last year shortlisted for the new-look Man Booker International Prize (now given for individual books rather than bodies of work and awarded to authors and their translators). Persoanlly, I'd have loved to see Robert Seethaler win for his exquisite novel in miniature, A Whole Life, or failing that, Jose Eduardo Agualusa's The General Theory of Oblivion. Alas, it went to Han Kang's widely celebrated The Vegetarian about which, you may recall, I was kind of nonplussed but, well, I'm in the minority. So big cheers to her and translator Deborah Smith.

In more personal book news, I got to meet one of my literary heroes - Jesse Ball. I know it's said you should never try to meet the artists you most admire and, for the most part in the past this has turned out to be true (cough cough Gene Simmons cough cough) but this was one time I was pretty stoked to have proved the adage wrong. Ball was just as friendly, charming and complex as I could have hoped. I also had the great privilege of helping organise the second ever Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival which, much to our great relief, turned out to be a huge success. Highlights included our international guests Nir Baram, Jami Attenberg and Elana Sztockman as well as local legends, both Jewish and not, Gail Jones, Joan London, Arnold Zable, Leah Kaminsky, Alan and Elizabeth Finkel, Peter Singer, Mirielle Juchau, Ramona Kowal and many, many more. I moderated a session on the future of the Holocaust novel which almost devolved to fisticuffs and participated in a wonderful poetry panel where I had the opportunity to spruik the little known but totally sublime Jiri Langer (best known as Franz Kafka's Hebrew teacher).

Now, onto the books of the year so far. Once again it looks like the first book I read will be the best. Garth Greenwell's taut, harrowing novel What Belongs To You has refused to dislodge itself from my chest since I wistfully reached its final sentence. Speaking of harrowing, Hanya Yanagihara has a clear successor for punch-in-the-guts novel of the year with Jung Yun's Shelter. The story of an already-damaged Korean American family further destroyed by an act of horrific violence absolutely tore me to shreds. One of the most insightful, painful works of the immigrant experience and the death of the American dream that I've ever read. Ian McIntryre's Melville meets McCarthy meets Conrad novel of whaling on the high seas, The North Water, is another work of beauty and brutality in equal measure that demands your reading attention. Meanwhile, John Wray blew my mind with the most madcap mashup of physics, comedy and complex morality in The Lost Time Accidents. I'm one of the few who didn't love his last book Lowboy but I think I finally get him. A shout out also must go to one of the few books that made me venture outside my Fiction Only rule, Arnold Zable's The Fighter. A biography of sorts in novel form, it tells of one of my city's greatest humans, former boxing champion, social worker and all round magnificent bloke Henry Nissen. And while the book might be about Henry and his brother Leon, to me it was an exquisite devotional hymn to their mother and all women like her who came from foreign lands following the horrors of the Holocaust and tried to build families while battling the most unforgiving of inner-demons.

2016 hasn't been without its disappointments either. After a truly inspired start, Don Delillo's latest, Zero K, plodded off into the narrative wilderness never to return. Ditto Ismail Kadare with A Girl In Exile. I don't know, it seems the all-time greats are sailing off into the literary sunset, still able to come up with an interesting premise but no longer able to steer the ship for the whole course. Perhaps the modern world is too much for their classical sensibilities. I was also a bit let down by two of the more experimental, wacky novels that have been garnering a fair amount of buzz: Alvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death and Manuel Gonzales's The Regional Office is Under Attack. Both were good reads but I was hoping for much, much more.

There's still a heap to look forward to over the coming months: Javier Marias's follow up to The Infatuations, intriguingly titled Thus Bad Begins, Emma Cline's novel of the Manson women, The Girls, Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Moonglow by Michael Chabon, Nutshell by Ian McEwan plus newies by David Eggers, Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, Donald Ray Pollack and, hoping against hope, Cormac McCarthy. Expect all those end of year lists to be peppered with exciting (and hopefully new) reads.

I'll try to get back on the regular blogging track soon. But until then I repeat: "I'M NOT DEAD YET!"