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 Check your outdated, prudish discomfort at the door and pick up a copy today.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