2017 In Review: And The Winner Is...

on Sunday, December 31, 2017

An unnamed guy turns up in an unnamed town somewhere neither coastal nor inland in country New South Wales. He's writing a book about disappearing towns; not the kind that die off because all the young people leave but towns that quite simply cease to exist. The town he has arrived in has yet to start disappearing, but it's a prime candidate. Still, our narrator gets a job stacking shelves at the local Woolworths supermarket, finds a housemate, hangs out at the pub, kind of falls for a girl who hosts a show nobody listens to on the local radio station, befriends the town's only bus driver, goes about his business and tries not to get bashed by some random guy that supposedly has it in for him. Then holes start appearing in the town.

It's weird. It's thrilling. It's a goddamned fucking masterpiece. This, dear Bookworms, is Shaun Prescott's magnificent debut, The Town.

Riffing off of early-to-mid 20th century European legends like Bernhard, Walser and Kafka, via experimental film, underground music and even video games, Prescott manages to create a seemingly familiar world that is, at the same time, completely foreign and disorienting. It is a distillation of small town ennui, refracted through a constantly shifting lens, where entire parallel universes are created like hallucinatory side quests. Sometimes, these come through in the form of confessional parables, like when the town's bus driver recalls his failed efforts as a music tour promoter or Ciara, the aforementioned radio host, creates entirely new genres of music for no apparent reason. Other times, it is the boredom itself that reigns: in the pub, at the local Michele's Patisserie. Prescott proves a master of narrative control, ensuring the most ordinary interactions are cloaked in a haze of foreboding. It's an unsettling experience, reading the loose set pieces knowing that something isn't quite right, but not being able to put your finger on it. It is also fucking funny. You know, the kind of funny when you're one step away from shitting your pants.

I have little doubt that I will be returning to The Town again and again over the coming years. It's the kind of book that clearly rewards multiple readings. For me, it is also a watershed moment in Australian literary fiction - a reinvention of what the contemporary Australian novel can be. Published by The Lifted Brow, the quirky collective of folks that, it is becoming ever more apparent, are all freakish literary savants, The Town has already been snapped up by major publishers overseas. I intend on being first in line to order each new edition. I suggest you get behind me.

And that, I guess, brings another year to a close. Sorry for neglecting you but I hope it was all for a good cause. I've had a fun week getting this old rustbucket back into gear. Expect to see a lot more of me here in 2018. Hope to see you around. Much love and new year's goodness to you all. And, most of all, happy reading!

2017 In Review: It's The Final Countdown!

on Friday, December 29, 2017
So Europe released a new album this year... Which is of no consequence whatsoever other than to say, look at that crappy headline I've been pushing for like six years now. Suddenly it's relevant again. Though, to be fair this:

is no this:

despite Joey Tempest's cool guy renaissance thanks to a hair straightener, some Grecian 2000 and the uncanny inability to sing everywhere except into the mic. But enough 80s fanboying, we've reached the pointy end of 2017 so it's time to rattle of my favourite reads. Will things ever be the same again?

5. Elmet by Fiona Mozley
What is it about the Booker Prize these days that gets it so wrong with the winner (yeah, shoot me, but some of you will recall Lincoln In The Bardo was my most overrated book of 2016) but still manages to find a completely unknown pearler to stick on the shortlist? Last year it was Graham Macrae Burnett's magnificent His Bloody Project. This time round it was Fiona Mozley and her unsettling debut, Elmet. Blending the mythical, historical and natural in a way that aims to continually wrong foot the reader, Mozley draws us towards inevitable catastrophe without ever telegraphing exactly what form it might take. In that sense, it is like riding a moral see-saw, one from which you might be thrown at any time. John, the narrator's father is a brilliantly complex character and one who you will have a difficult time working out. He's taken his two children into the countryside, to a house he built with his own hands, in what might be an attempt to protect them from the dangers of modern life. Or he might be a savage bully at war with the world around him, abusive and selfish, who has simply stolen them away. Of course, as the children grow and the folk in the surrounding towns become increasingly concerned for their welfare, things are bound to come to a head. And that is where Elmet takes a turn for the truly shocking. Seriously, it is beyond me how this did not win the Booker.

4. Belladonna by Daša Drndić
One day, when the world as we know it has ended, and we're all left picking our noses in atomic fallout shelters, someone will be trawling through the literature of the 21st century, happen upon the works of Daša Drndić and wonder why we didn't listen to her while we still had the chance. We certainly won't be able to say we weren't warned. Drndić rubs our noses in the shit of history and forces us to inhale for our own good. She did it in Trieste (my favourite novel of the last ten years). She did it in Leica Format. And again she has done it in Belladonna. There is an obsessive circularity about her books, such that they might best be read as a triptych. And while the material Drndić mines might have a certain sameness across the three works - an interrogation of history that unfolds into an excoriation of our collective failings - each one attacks it from a unique angle. In Belladonna, it is retired psychologist Andreas Ban who embarks on the excavation. Faced with his own mortality after being diagnosed with breast cancer, he begins to trawl his old files and books, finding connections he had not noticed before, only to realise that he is only one or two steps removed from atrocity. This intense connectivity sends him (and, by association, us) down the rabbit hole of despair, where he hides away assembling the ultimate indictment against the human race. And reader beware: we are all guilty. Belladonna is a dark, demanding book, but a fiercely moral and empowering one, too. Another triumph from one of the most important writers of our times.

3. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
So it turns out we've been robbed. While we were reading the fine novels of Rushdie, Desai, Naipaul and Roy, there's been an entire body of Indian literature hitherto unavailable to us in the English speaking world. Don't get me wrong. I adore Indian post-colonial lit. But having now read Vivek Shanbhag's masterpiece in miniature, Ghachar Ghochar, I can't help but feel I've been missing out. Written in the basha (vernacular language) of Kannada, this story of sudden wealth and moral ruin is so finely wrought, so perfectly precise, that it says more than most of the epic tomes we've come to expect from the subcontinent. The title is a nonsense phrase, akin to the Hebrew balagan or, if you're a fan of 80s action films, FUBAR, meaning so comprehensively messed up and twisted that it cannot be undone. It is a concept that floats throughout the book in various guises, as we witness the material rise of the narrator's family thanks to an entrepreneurial uncle's successful spice business. Everyone reaps the benefit, but also succumbs to the pitfalls of the nouveau riche: pettiness, arrogance, scheming and downright nastiness. It is a universal cautionary tale, magnified exponentially by the rigid stratification of Indian society. And it is executed to near perfection.

2. Euphoria by Heinz Helle
Rug up, Bookworms, because this is about as cold a novel as you will ever find. Some friends go for a weekend away in the Austrian Alps. They muck about, as you do, and think nothing of the world. When the time comes to come back down, they quickly notice that something is awry. An entire village at the base of the mountain is on fire. There is nobody about. Somehow, the apocalypse has come and left only them behind. At first, they band together in the hope of survival. But, fuck it, there's nothing left worth surviving for and so they quickly descend into savagery. Set against a frozen, unforgiving landscape, Euphoria is a horrifying tale of man versus man versus the elements versus what the hell (or, Helle... sorry) happened to the world. Comparisons have been made to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and while there are certain parallels to be found, this is by far the bleaker book. In fact, Helle paints a portrait of humanity so comprehensively stripped bare that it is almost impossible to digest. At least The Road had an air of redemption about it. Not here. Just the bitter pill of our lesser selves.

Well, only one book to go. Join me on Sunday when I'll reveal my 2017 Bait For Bookworms Book of The Year.

2017 In Review: Some Books I Loved in 2017

on Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Wait! Can I count kids' books? I mean, board books like Where Is The Green Sheep or Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. What about Piranhas Don't Eat Bananas? Yeah, so forget what I said last post. I read closer to 350 books this year (including rereads of aforementioned kids' books). *sigh* But, of the seventy-odd books for grown ups - yeah this is how I distinguish my reading these days - there were a bunch that really stood out. I'm glad to note, as I write this post, that most were Australian. Yes, Australian writing is in a pretty bloody good state in 2017. I'll be hitting the pointy end of my pontificating year later in the week, but until then, here's a bunch of truly excellent books you should rush out and read:

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Quiet, sad and angry, Solar Bones reminded me of the kind of book Anne Enright might write if she were more experimental with form. Don't let the single sentence schtick put you off - McCormack's style mesmerises the reader as the novel progresses and you'll barely notice its peculiarity by the end. Ultimately, this is a beautiful novel about ordinary people in depressed times.

Atlantic Black by A.S. Patrić
Having won the Miles Franklin with his debut novel Black Rock White City (my 2015 Book of the Year, a designation that I'm sure totally crapped on that other prize), it would have been easy for AS Patrić to play it safe and continue to mine contemporary Australian suburbia for his long form fiction. Instead, Patrić opts for a big risk - a novel with thoroughly European sensibilities, set over the course of a single day in 1938 on the ocean liner, RMS Aquitana. Unlike its predecessor, Atlantic Black is a slow burn of a novel, perfectly constructed so that what you will first experience as a glacial broodiness gradually gives way to a sense of foreboding so intense that you might well break into a sweat. Throughout, we follow Katerina Klova, left to fend for herself after the complete mental collapse of her mother, as the ship lurches towards the new year and, at least in our minds, impending war. It is something of a sinister picaresque, if such a thing exists, unfolding in real time and pocked with moments of terror, both visceral and hallucinatory. There is a great deal to admire about Atlantic Black, but its true genius lies in Patrić's ability to compress the sand of history so tightly that it becomes a mirror in which we can see the impending catastrophe of our own times. A brave and important book.

Rubik by Elizabeth Tan
As a child of the 80s, I was well and truly a member of the Rubik's Cube generation. I totally sucked at it. While all my friends twisted and turned the little squares until they lined up into six beautifully solid sides, I was forced to resort to the safe space of the spatially challenged: cheating. Sometimes I'd peel off all the stickers and re-stick them to form a slightly off-kilter face with peeling edges. Other times, I'd pull the entire cube apart into its constituent squares and carefully reassemble it. All of which is a round about way of saying, I read Elizabeth Tan's Rubik with a sense of exhilaration I can only imagine was felt by those friends more savvy with the whole twist and win strategy as they neared completion. Rubik is wonderfully original; a series of stories that seem, at first, to be only tangentially related but which spiral into an intricately woven narrative that is quite clearly a novel. It's playful, weird, thrilling and, at times, rather moving. Put simply, you should read it.

From The Wreck by Jane Rawson
When it comes to genre-defying, brain-bending brilliance, nobody in Australia does it quite like Jane Rawson. It's easy to pick comparative reference points - Attwood, Ballard, Lessing, Lovecraft - but to reduce her to any combination thereof would criminally understate the sheer originality of her work. In From The Wreck, Rawson turns her pen to historical fiction of sorts - the story of a shipwreck off the South Australian coast and its aftermath. The SS Admella went down in 1859, killing 89 of its 113 passengers. Among the survivors was Jane Rawson's great great grandfather, George Hills. In Rawson's version of the story, another was a shape shifting alien who might have been rescued in the form of the only female survivor, Bridget Ledwith. Obsession, guilt and delusion play a big part in this thoroughly strange book, and Rawson has a lot of profound things to say about them all. When I finished it, I wasn't quite sure what had actually happened, but I knew I had just read something quite extraordinary.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Given its place in popular culture (and I'm not just talking about the bad 80s hair metal band), it's hard to believe that the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden haven't spawned a cottage industry in literary retellings. Apart from a couple of stories by Angela Carter, I can't really think of any worth its thwack of the axe. Enter Sarah Schmidt, who, in See What I Have Done, has ingeniously inhabited the mind of not only Lizzie herself, but three other important players in this great unsolved crime. The chain-of-voices works perfectly in keeping everything tense and uncertain, all the more so because all four narrators are decidedly unreliable. To that end it reminded me of Iain Pears's magnificent An Instance of The Fingerpost. Schmidt's Lizzie is a picture of creepy instability and is a masterwork of perfectly-pitched characterisation. As for whether she did it, though. Well...

The Man Who Took To His Bed by Alex Skovron
As a huge fan of Alex Skovron's extraordinary novella, The Poet, I was excited to hear that he was returning to the world of prose (after 15-odd years) with his first ever short story collection. I'm glad to say that The Man Who Took To His Bed did not disappoint. One of Australia's finest poets, Skovron brings a lyrical beauty few possess to these wonderful, compelling and, at times, odd stories. But it's not just the writing that should draw you in - the imaginative range and creative energy are nothing short of superb. Ranging from the hyper-realist to the downright surreal, this is a collection to not only enjoy, but to truly savour.

Dinner at the Centre of the Earth by Nathan Englander
Great to see Englander eschewing the tempting pretentiousness of the 'literary' novel and going for a straight-up John Le Carré style thriller. Of course, it still is Nathan Englander so it's chock full of complex layers and beautiful writing but, damn, is it a fun ride! Coming from Australia, there is a weird sense of familiarity and discomfort as Prisoner Z's fate closely mirrors that of the infamous Prisoner X story - a young Australian former Mossad agent kept in secret solitary and ultimately left to die after he cracked on the job. An unsettling, challenging but ultimately enthralling read.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
In a year that will be remembered for the mass displacement of people from their war-torn homes, and my own country's shameful mistreatment of those seeking refuge, no book seemed as relevant or humane as Mohsin Hamid's Exit West. At its most basic, this is a love story - two young people meet in an unnamed Middle Eastern country just as war breaks out. Through their efforts to simply be a couple in love, we witness the disintegration of society around them and come to understand the ease with which "normal" can slide towards catastrophic. What sets Exit West apart from other such refugee narratives is a particular magical realist twist: doors appear in the city which transport those who enter them to other countries. This strange dreamlike device works at its most basic in giving the reader some insight into the refugee experience across the globe. But it also operates on a more philosophical level; we are forced to consider the meaning of "borders" in a time of mass migration, and the moral obligation of the individual in the receiving state. All in all a beautiful love story with profound implications.

The Student by Iain Ryan
Listen up, Bookworms. It pays to listen to your local bookseller. A few months ago I was browsing the shelves of the bookstore around the corner, not really sure what I felt like reading, when the manager (hi, Amy) sensed my deep existential distress and raced across to rescue me. In her hands was a copy of Iain Ryan's The Student. Now, it's kind of weird because I almost never buy crime novels, but she insisted I buy it because, well, "you'll really like it. I promise." Of course, she was right. Set in the town of Grattan (I feel that ought to be noted because, seriously, who the fuck sets their crime novel in a Queensland country town???), The Student is a gritty thrill-ride of murder, drug deals gone wrong, outlaw bikie enforcers, sexual deviance and general criminal hijinks. It's tight, no-holds-barred Aussie noir of the best kind. I mean what a bunch of unlikeable losers, and yet here I was rooting for them at every turn. Probably the most enjoyable book of the year for me.

The Lost Papers by Marija Peričić
My old friend Franz Kafka had something of a resurrection on the page in 2017. Nicole Krause played the chutzpah card in Forest Dark, imagining that Kafka faked his own death only to set up in Max Brod's Tel Aviv apartment where he could write undisturbed. It was a masterful play on the literary obsession with "Kafka's suitcase" and was, to me, the highlight of an otherwise uneven novel. But Krause's lark was nothing next to the sheer gaul (and I mean that in the best possible way) of Marija Peričić's reimagining of the friendship between Brod and Kafka in The Lost Papers. Rather than propping up the party line of a supportive friendship, Peričić nails what those of us who love Kafka have always thought - that Brod was insanely jealous of his far more talented friend. In The Lost Papers, it drives him to obsession, to compulsion, to delusion. As the novel unfolds, the layers of chicanery are peeled back, leaving us with something that owes more to Dostoevsky or Saramago than Kafka himself. A deliciously playful delight.

Well, that about does it. Join me on Friday for my final countdown of my five favourite books of 2017.

2017 In Review: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Saturday, December 23, 2017
Confession time. I only read 70 books this year, 74 if you count unpublished manuscripts (and, like, 174 if you count drafts of my own book during the final edit). Which means, of course, that my sample size is embarrassingly small. Oh, well, you know what they say - never let your small, small knowledge base stop you from forging ahead with whatever the hell you plan to do. It's the kind of strategy that gets you high political office these days. So let's begin this year's cavalcade of grandiose pontification with smatterings of bookwormish ephemera: the things that are either not about this year, not about judging books for what lies between the covers, or not about books at all.

Here Come The Dogs by Omar Musa
I've always been meaning to read Here Come The Dogs. I remember when it came out; all the excitement, the palpable buzz. And then, you know, time... As luck would have it, I did a radio thing with Musa this year and so took the opportunity to read this and a couple of books of his poetry before we met. Even a few years on, Here Come The Dogs is a riveting, fresh novel that sparks and bristles on the page. The story of Jimmy, Solomon and Aleks is the real deal, a glimpse into an Australia that many seem to fear simply because they don't bother to engage with it. But most of all, Here Come The Dogs is street music committed to the page; authentic, painful and oftentimes hilarious.

The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria
Written in 1977, this hallucinatory mindfuck of a novel, charting the twenty days during which the people of Turin experience a collective psychosis brought about by the mysterious "Library", would be the stuff of nightmares if only it didn't mirror the current climate of mass paranoia. Equal parts Borges, Poe, Orwell and occult text, The Twenty Days of Turin disturbed me more than anything else I read. Come from the horror, stay for the prescience.

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler
Before Ian Fleming, there was Eric Ambler. The great grandaddy of the genre; the spy thriller writer's spy thriller writer. You get my drift. Usually, I'd not have thought to pick up one of his books - heck I'd never even heard of him. But my brother-in-law brought this as his plane read from England and I wanted something fun to kick of the year. Kismet, I suppose. The Mask of Dimitrios is about as old school a spy novel as you could hope for. A mystery writer gets caught up in a web of intrigue and espionage when he tries to piece together the last days of arch criminal Dimitrios, whose body has turned up in a Turkish morgue, No fancy gadgets, no whizzbang technology, just proper dirty dealings and double crossings. Sure, it's hokey and a bit too po-faced for its own good, but it's a joyously indulgent throwback.

Ok, so shoot me, but I think WH Chong's cover design for my book was simply extraordinary. Even if it wasn't mine, I'd still have picked this.

Other books to judge by their covers:

This year I'm not going to do proper a countdown because, frankly, 2017 just wasn't a great year for music. That's not to say there weren't some really good albums, but not good enough to have me burn the midnight oil, tearing my hear out trying to decide which one goes where on my list. So, with that in mind, some music I dug in 2017:

Mystery Weekend - Surprise
Halfway through the first song, Theodore, it occurred to me that Mystery Weekend might just have put out the Protest The Hero album I've been waiting for since Scurrilous. Then I discovered MW is fronted by PTH's Rody Walker. Makes sense. Fast, fun and technically furious.
Pick of the Crop: Everyone's a Liar
Mystery Weekend Bandcamp

The Movielife - Cities In Search of a Heart
I'm quite convinced that Vinnie Caruana is a magician. Or a mutant. Or a magical, mutated wünderkind. His recent output with I Am The Avalanche and last year's solo album have been exercises in pop punk perfection. But let's face it, we've all been hoping for a new Movielife album. Now it's here and goddammit it's sublime.
Pick of the Bunch: I honestly can't choose.

Ezra Kire - Speakers in the Sky
I'll never quite understand why I connect so deeply with Ezra Kire's poetry of the gutter but he has a way of piercing my heart like almost nobody else. Morning Glory's Poets Were My Heroes was my album of the year way back in 2012 and still stands strong as one of my favourites of all time. Speakers In The Sky doesn't quite reach that album's heights but, as the first solo outing for Kire, it does a fine job of growing his catalogue with characteristic heartbreak, misery, wistfulness and hope.
Pick of the Bunch: Civilian Song

Direct Hit/PEARS: Human Movement
I've never really "got" Direct Hit before, so I picked this up because PEARS are undoubtedly the most exciting punk band to appear in the past three years. Needless to say, I was quite surprised to find my expectations turned on their head by this consistently kick-arse split album. PEARS's contributions are as fun and fiery as I'd hoped, but, holy mother of out-of-control trains, Direct Hit's six songs are just awesome.
Pick of the Bunch: Shifting the Blame

The Sherlocks - Live For The Moment
Raucous pop from these British lads. Hooks a plenty, attitude for miles, Live For The Moment does exactly what its title says.
Pick of the Bunch: Was It Really Worth It?

Propagandhi - Victory Lap
The bad news: It's not quite Tomorrow's Empires or Supporting Caste level amazingness.
The good news: It's still Propagandhi so, ya know, it's politically-charged, technically-spectacular punk rock brilliance.
Pick of the Bunch: Letters to a Young Anus

Rancid - Trouble Maker
Old punx do a reasonably convincing job of sounding like young punx again. By far their best since Indestructible.
Pick of the Bunch: An Intimate Portrait of a Street Punk Trouble Maker

Bad Cop/Bad Cop - Warriors
It's hard to listen to this album without thinking about Stacey Dee's star performance in the punk rock musical Home Street Home. The snarling passion she now spits out on Warriors might come straight from the heart of Sue, with anarcho-feminist anthems and songs of struggle to keep the fire burning. Politically, it a raised middle finger to much of what's shit about the world right now. Thoroughly enjoyable, straight shooting and full of surprises, this is one of the most important punk records of 2017.
Pick of the Bunch - I'm Done

Harry Styles - Harry Styles
Kill me now. I loved this album. Overblown, bombastic pop with enough left turns to keep it interesting.
Pick of the Bunch: Sweet Creature

Brand New - Science Fiction
A strange surprise album from these remnants of the emo era, Science Fiction is quite unlike anything Brand New have done before while still feeling creepily familiar. It's dark, brooding and rather magnificent.
Pick of the Bunch: Can't Get It Out

Nothington - In The End
No frills. Just some good, honest, gravel-voiced org punk of the highest order.
Pick of the Bunch - End Transmission

The Lapelles - The Lapelles
Great band. Tragic story. They would have been around a while.
Pick of the Bunch: Snakehips

D-Metal Stars - Metal Disney If you don't love this, then you hate your childhood self. Seek therapy.
Pick of the Bunch: I See The Light

The Lillingtons - Stella Sapiente
Bunch of old dudes come out of retirement to make a weird, semi-themed surf punk album about templars and medieval shenanigans. And it's a total, unadulterated triumph.
Pick of the Bunch - Insect Nightmares or Villagers

Hi-Standard - The Gift
These Japanese goofballs have always been madcap fun at a billion miles an hour. This new album, 18 years after their last, is no different. Party on.
Pick of the Bunch - The Gift

What's 11 Months Between Bookworms?

Ok, so eleven and a half but who's counting?

As 2017 speeds to a close, I thought it might be time to see if this little rust bucket still had a few sparks left. How I've missed pontificating from my cyber-bubble about all things bookish - lavishing praise like a sycophantic schoolboy suddenly thrust before his favourite pop star (for me that would have been Matt Goss circa 1988), or snarkily lobbing potshots over the fortress walls 80s video game style. Admittedly, I've been kind of busy. I seldom talk about my own writing here but 2017 saw the publication of my own novel.

I'm not going to crap on about it, but, if you want to know more, you can check it out here.

I also had my first kid who, I am pleased to report, is a cheery, hilarious little girl already obsessed with the books of Aaron Blabey and Franz Kafka. The future looks good for this one.

As you long-suffering bookworms know, it's long been my tradition to do a detailed countdown listing my favourites and not-so-favourites of all things even semi-related to books (and a few things completely unrelated). This year I'm keeping it simple. Over the next few days I plan to list:

December 25: Secondary Stars and Satellites
December 27: A Few Books I Loved in 2017
December 29: The Final Countdown
December 31: And The Winner Is...