2018 In Review: And The Winner Is...

on Monday, December 31, 2018

Ok, I know what you're thinking. Here he goes again... And you're right. But let me explain.

Contrary to the belief of pretty much everyone who knows my reading habits, I don't give Jesse Ball an automatic gold star for everything he writes. And the release of a new book doesn't just nullify every other great book I read in any given year. It's just the guy is so bloody good. Even in his lesser moments he still manages to impress. And when he is at Peak Jesse (I've decided it's a thing), there's probably nobody writing like him today. Census, by any estimation, is Peak Jesse. Inspired by the death of his brother (well, actually the life of his brother), it is a novel of such profound beauty, so rich in creative warmth, that ten months after having first read it I still melt whenever it crosses my mind. Very few books have had that effect on me. Maybe Binu and the Great Wall, Melisande! What Are Dreams or Censoring an Iranian Love Story.

As I said back in March:

"Census is a deeply humane and tender novel, brimming with compassion, deep and original thought, sweetness and, yes, even humour. It asks big questions, and offers gentle guidance towards meaningful answers. It also throws down the gauntlet for how future writers might consider engaging artistically with their loss."

I have now read Census three times. If I could wipe my brain just to discover it anew I probably would. Little surprise then, that like The Curfew and Silence Once Begun before it, Census lands Jesse Ball the Bait For Bookworms Book of the Year.

Now bring on 2019.

2018: It's The Final Countdown

on Friday, December 28, 2018
Still keeping it simple. Here are 9 of the top ten books I read this year.

With so many post-apocalyptic novels doing the rounds these days, it's getting ever harder to stand out from the crowd. Kudos to Ling Ma, then, for pulling off a wholly original take on the genre, equal parts hilarious and downright frightening. As the world succumbs to a mysterious virus, Candace Chen remains committed to her shitty job, coming into the office each day to find fewer and fewer of her colleagues at their desks. In alternating chapters, we also see Candace after she's escaped the city and joined a band of survivors in search of The Facility. Severance is a great adventure, but it's an even better commentary on the stupidity of our modern lives.

After two excellent novels, A.S. Patrić returns to the short form and, I have to say, it's a deadset triumph. The Butcherbird Stories not only confirms but builds on Patrić's reputation as one of Australia's finest writers. Each of the eleven stories is a wonder to read: beautifully crafted, edgy, captivating and fresh. For those who missed Patrić's brilliant novella, Bruno Kramzer, it makes a welcome reappearance here under a new title (Among The Ruins). And then there's The Flood, another novella-length story that might just be one of my favourite things that Patrić has written. Top it off with gorgeous production values - ten points to Transit Lounge for releasing it in hardcover - and you have an absolute must buy.

2018 was one of the first years that I really got stuck in to reading some non-fiction that wasn't related to research for my own writing and, I think, it's done me good. Old me might never have picked up Axiomatic, but enough lit-loving friends were raving about it to convince me I'd be a fool to let it slip by. I don't really know how to describe this book other than to say Maria Tumarkin would have to be the most important public intellectual at work in Australia right now and this is her in full flight. Riffing on five seemingly self-evident axioms, Tumarkin forces us to question what we take for granted by dragging our minds across the grater of painful experience. The result is nothing short of magnificent.

No other book hit on 2018's zeitgeist quite like Miriam Toews's Women Talking. From a true story of the mass drugging and rape of Mennonite women by the men in their own community, Toews fashions an urgent and searing commentary on sexual power, exploitation and, ultimately, social revolution. Stripped of mod-cons, the Mennonite experience lends an almost fable-like air to the story, intensifying the book's metaphoric power. It's an intense read, quiet in its rage, but deafening in its moral force.

Well here's an unlikely top tenner. A picture book, only thirty-odd pages, and containing less than two hundred words, Shaun Tan's Cicada says more about the human condition than most other books this year. Drawing heavily on Kafka, with a hint of Ben Folds' Fred Jones, the titular Cicada is a data entry clerk, a cog in some menial bureaucratic machine. Over 17 years he is progressively crushed by his work and by those around him, all the while longing for something more from his life. It's heartbreaking and infuriating but ultimately redemptive and profound.

Was there a more thrilling opening chapter to any book this year than the sea hunt in Robbie Arnott's Flames? In narrative verve and edge-of-the-seat tension it reminded me of the hot air ballon crash in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, but with an almost Melvillian flair. Thankfully, what follows didn't disappoint. Flames proved a strange, magical, nigh mythical work of deeply Australian storytelling in which the characters are almost indistinguishable from the elemental forces that rage within. Trust me, you haven't read anything like it. Just beautiful.

One day we will look back on this era of Australian history with deep shame. What we have done, and what we have failed to do when it comes to our humanitarian obligations is frankly outrageous. At least we won't be allowed to forget. Behrouz Bouchani's staggering account of his imprisonment on Manus Island will continue to shine brightly as a mnemonic beacon long after the detention centres have been closed down. No Friend But The Mountains is a masterpiece of prisoner literature, up there with Solzhenitsyn and Levi (and no, I'm not going the Godwin's Law route, but I had visceral shivers reading some of the familiar conditions in that hellhole). Moreover, it is an instant Australian classic. Probably the most important book published here this century. The prose is stunning, the poetry sublime. It is dignified and courageous, honest and excoriating. I urge everyone to read it.

A man and boy stumble into a small town, seeking refuge. The locals take them in but grow progressively suspicious, and build a large cage to keep them until they can figure out what they should do. As the townsfolk bicker amongst themselves, the refugees seem ever less human, reduced as they are to base existence. Inspired by Lloyd Jones's own observation of mass displacement in Europe, this dark allegory should have absolutely dominated the literary world in 2018. It's the kind of book I see myself rereading over and over again in the coming years. If you happened to miss it, now would be a good time to rectify that.

When it comes to quiet achievers, you really have to hand it to Robert Lukins and his exquisite debut, The Everlasting Sunday. Released in January by a publisher that spent the rest of year punching far above its weight, The Everlasting Sunday has continued to pick up new readers and is now finding itself on almost every end of year list I've seen. It's not hard to see why. The Everlasting Sunday is humble in its quietude and deceptive simple in its telling but contains a deep excavation of the complexities of young manhood. It's a beautiful book, in every sense, and one that richly deserves all the praise it is receives.

2018 In Review: Some Books I Loved This Year

on Wednesday, December 26, 2018
Once again I'm leaving it until the last moment to do my final countdown but, in the meantime, here are a few books published in 2018 that I really enjoyed.

I'm a big fan of Krissy Kneen's books. They're consistently smart, original and deliciously offbeat. That said, I think Wintering just might be my favourite. Having grown up on weird vampire and werewolf novels, I found Kneen's decidedly Aussie take on the genre to be brilliantly subversive and creepy. With the Australian obsession about the Tasmanian Tiger at its heart, Kneen riffs thoughtfully about community, family, superstition and environmental degradation. It's a thriller with some serious grey matter. Plus there's Tassie Were-tiger sex. What more could you want?

So imagine, if you will, a Hunter S. Thompson or William Burroughs novel written now, totally plugged into its generation but more experimental in form. That's pretty much what you get with this absolute shot of adrenalin from Melbourne's Jamie Marina Lau. Sure, there were times I had no idea what the hell was going on, but the pure energy that courses through this novel's veins is so exhilarating to behold, that actual narrative doesn't really matter. Which isn't to say the story isn't great - drugs, technology, gambling, partying (again, to use an analogy, think Brett Easton Ellis if he was actually cool) but there's so much to like about this book that it doesn't really matter if one minor element cracks at any given point.

There's a certain inevitability to Ackerman's latest book, not the least because we know from the beginning how it ends. Two friends, army buddies, are caught in an IED explosion that kills one and leaves the other - Eden - a burnt husk, barely clinging to life. It is the former that narrates the story: how they got there, their friendship, their struggles, and, of course, the narrator's betrayal. While we wait for Eden to die (itself an excruciatingly long ordeal), we watch his wife sitting by his bedside, mourning her husband, and the part she played in betraying him. This is a lyrical, intense novel, spare, cutting and deeply moving.

Barely a year after his brilliant novel, On The Java Ridge, Jock Serong brings us another tautly written, morally complex thrill-ride, this time set in the early years of Australia's colonisation. Preservation takes as its anchor point (sorry) a shipwreck off the coast of Tasmania in which fourteen people died and only a couple survived. From this historical footnote, Serong fashions a magnificent adventure reminiscent of books like Ian McGuire's The North Water or Ottessa Moshfegh's McGlue. What sets it apart and, dare I say, above those books however is just how historically and socially aware it is; Preservation provides some serious food for thought about Australian history, collective responsibility and the fragile bonds of civility.

When I first reviewed it back in January, I began with a warning that Emma Glass's Peach might just destroy you. Okay, so maybe it hasn't destroyed me, but a year on and I still think about it often. Few books have lodged so uncomfortably in my heart as Peach (only Veronique Olmi's Beside The Sea springs to mind), not only for its harrowing story but also the stylistic daring and verve with which it is delivered. It's a slim book, but it packs so many punches in the gut that you'll likely spend most of it gasping for breath.

2018 In Review: Oh, Hey There. I'm Still Here.

on Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Well, howdy Bookworms. Or what's left of you. Turns out I'm still here. And it’s that time of year when I opine my lack of blogging activity and promise I’ll do better next time. So, yeah, that. Kid. Book stuff. Blah blah. Anyhoo… I’m keeping it simple this year in the hope that I can only exceed expectations in 2019.

Still, I can’t let December tick by without a few lists. So here goes...

An Untouched House - Willem Frederik Hermans
A short, savage novella about the fragility of the civil façade, An Untouched House is a criminally neglected masterpiece of post-War European literature (it was first published in 1950). A retreating partisan finds shelter in an unoccupied house. Exhausted, he collapses into a deep sleep only to find the house overrun by Nazis when he wakes. With quick wit, he poses as the house's owner and ingratiates himself with his enemies. Until he sees the real owner approaching. All the tension of a thriller, and the moral complexity of a literary classic.

No More Boats - Felicity Castagna
In the context of our fractured and ugly political climate, No More Boats is about as pointed a novel as you could hope to read. It's kind of scary to think that, despite being set in 2001 - right at the beginning of the refugee panic - its lessons not only remain relevant but are probably even more so today. A gripping, if grim, insight into Australian life at a time we are destined to look back at with shame.

The Tidings of the Trees - Wolfgang Hilbig
I've always found Hilbig to be kind of impenetrable. Friends have assured me that's part of his charm. I'll take their word for it. That said, there's been something noticeably Krasznahorkaian or Sebaldian about the books I have read, and I've wondered if I could stomach him a bit better in small doses. This year saw the publication of two novellas - The Old Rendering Plant and The Tidings of the Trees - so I thought I'd give him another go. Well, I'm glad I did. Both were great. But it was The Tiding of the Trees that absolutely blew me away. Think a bleaker, more surreal Kafka (yeah...). In the ashes of what was once a forest, a failed writer encounters inhabitants called Garbagemen who are sorting through the detritus of a destroyed civilisation and arranging discarded mannequins into obtuse poses. This is horror at its most existential.

Her Father's Daughter - Alice Pung
Unpolished Gem might have established Alice Pung as a major voice on the Australian scene, but for me it is her second book, Her Father's Daughter, that really catapulted her into the stratosphere of the greats. A beautiful tribute to the suffering of her parents under Pol Pot, this book sits alongside the greatest literary works on the horrors of genocide. I'm embarrassed to say I knew very little about the Killing Fields before I read this, and spent much of the time with my jaw on the floor. The barbarity. The senselessness. The absolute inhumanity. It's a difficult read, but an absolutely crucial one.

One of the Boys - Daniel Magariel
Scenes of an ordinary domestic life slowly unravel to paint the portrait of a man who manipulates and viciously abuses his children. We see it from the perspective of the younger boy, at first wholly in awe of the father who rescued him from a mother he is told was dangerous and neglectful. It's all great fun, and life in a new town seems like a lark, but then the cracks begin to show. As the father slumps into a cycle of drugs, alcohol and violence the boys try to keep it together, until they are pitted against each other. A harrowing, short work of considerable brilliance.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil - George Saunders
Ok. Time for me to commit lit-hipster hara-kiri: I just don't get the fuss about George Saunders. Sure, there are a few good stories, but other than that... meh. Oh, and, Lincoln In The Bardo was okay, but would have made a much better short story. In the hope of being proven wrong, I asked a friend who works in a bookstore to prove me wrong. He recommended The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. And dammit, he was right. This hilarious, surreal novella (well, actually, it's really more of a slightly longer short story) is so bonkers that it's impossible not to fall totally in love with it. A tiny country, that can only fit a few people at a time, comes under siege from its expansionist neighbour led by the downright awful Phil. Bloody genius. Still doesn't make up for Lincoln, though.

In previous years I've used the Shelf of Shame to bag out books that I didn't like: the overhyped, the overdone and the downright crap. Seems I've grown a conscience over the past 12 months so now I'm using it to bag myself out. So yeah, I read about 120 books this year (including manuscripts) but here are the ones I bought and, to my great shame, didn't get around to reading.

2018 wasn't the most exciting music year. There were a fair few EPs (Gods of Mount Olympus, Slow Bloom, Michael Burrows, The Fever 333, etc) I really enjoyed, but when it came to full lengths, these were the ones that did it for me:

23. Peace - Kindness Is The New Rock N'Roll. Soulful, heartfelt and damn catchy, Peace came in early with this pearler. I still go back and listen to it every now and then, and just give myself over to its sweet charm.

22. Judas Priest - Firepower
How a bunch of dudes almost the same age as my dad can still put out this year’s riffiest, wildest dose of old school metal is beyond me. But hey, here it is.

21. Razorlight - Olympus Sleeping
Razorlight were once the darlings of the British music press. Countless years, and a bunch of silly controversies later, this album came and went without so much as a peep. The one review I did read mostly complained about the lack of musical growth it demonstrated. I, for one, don’t want Razorlight to mature. Jangly guitar pop? Yes please. My favourite album of theirs since the self-titled masterpiece.

20. Reef - Revelation
Maybe it’s just the nostalgia speaking, but I’ve kind of missed these 90s soul pop titans. Twenty-odd years on, they may look a little worse for wear - shit, they look like a Unabomber lookalike contest with guitars - and just might have tilted into full cheese, but they still have the chops to make me wanna get up and dance.

19. Alkaline Trio - Is This Thing Cursed?
Good Mourning is one of may favourite albums of all time. Almost everything since has made me want to stab my ears with a rusty trowel (which, I realise, might be a compliment when it comes to A3 but isn’t intended as one). This does not.

18. The Frights - Hypochondriac
Not sure when exactly it happened, but at some point The Frights turned from a hard-to-pin-down pinkish band to love child of The Eels and Weezer. In theory, I’d totally hate them. But this is a mighty fine, deliciously quirky record.

17. We Are The Union - Self Care
Ska-tinged, speedy punk done remarkably well with absolutely zero fanfare.

16. The Last Gang - Keep Them Counting
Snarly, snotty punk rock with a riotgrrrl punch.

15. Lee Corey Oswald - Darkness, Together
Come for the name, stay for the collection of abrasive, thoughtful alt-rock tunes.

14. Ash - Islands
There was a time when we’d all marvel at Tim Wheeler’s ridiculous youth. What was he when Ash released Petrol? Like 4? Now he’s approaching middle age but he’s still writing top notch abrasive guitar pop songs and Islands is one of Ash’s best albums in a very long time. Welcome back, young Tim.

13. Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers - Bought To Rot
Laura Jane Grace is one of the most prolific, inspirational and all-round amazing people in the punk rock world. A few listens of this and I’m left wondering why it isn’t an Against Me! Album but, hey, that’s her prerogative and I’ll take this killer collection of tunes in whatever incarnation she wants to give it to me.

12. The Coral - Move Through The Dawn
The Coral are one of those bands that I totally dug at the beginning but then grew bored of very quickly and mostly forgot about. Which is to say I really haven’t cared for their last five or so albums. But this… this is something special. Extra points for quite possibly my favourite song of the year: Strangers In The Hollow.

11. Ghost - Prequelle
The only thing Tobias Forge loves more than whipping up a controversy is making spectacular, bombastic, overblown metal masterpieces. This might very well be his magnum opus.

10. Albert Hammond Jr - Francis Trouble
A few days ago, I listened to The Strokes’s debut album Is This It? for the the first time in donkey’s ears. Yep, it’s still bloody great. All that money they spent making it sound like they spent no money making it really paid off. Almost twenty years on, it totally stacks up. Can’t say the same for most of the band members, though. Except, that is, Albert Hammond Jr. With a slew of solid albums to his name, he remains the one Stroke who doesn’t shame their name. I don’t think Francis Trouble got a great deal of attention but by god it should have.

9. The Bennies - Natural Born Chillers
The Bennies are the ultimate party band and seeing them live is tantamount to a transformative religious experience. I’ve never thought they had quite captured on record what makes them so great. Which is why Natural Born Chillers made me so damn happy. Far and away THE party album of the year.

8. Pass Away - The Hell I’ve Seen
I picked this up knowing nothing about the band. The cover kind of reminded me of something I Am The Avalanche might put out. No surprise then to learn that Pass Away are basically IATA without Vinnie Caruana. Same vibe, same killer songs. A total kick in the feels.

7. Tiny Moving Parts - Swell
Not the sort of thing I usually go for, but Tiny Moving Parts floored me with their emo-prog-math brilliance.

6. Andrew WK - You’re Not Alone
If Killing Joke went posi-core and dressed in all white, they might just have released this album twenty years ago. As it is, self-proclaimed party god and lord of making you feel good about yourself let this ripper slip early in the year and it’s still my go-to for a bit of an audio pat on the back.

5. Pennywise - Never Gonna Die
Jim is back. Properly this time. And these punk rock veterans sound all the fresher for it. An astonishingly good album that packs a solid wallop!

4. Antarctigo Vespucci - Love In The Time of E-Mail
There’s something about the combination of Jeff Rosenstock and Chris Farren that results in pure musical magic. Sure, it’s totally geeky and full of cheese, but it’s so, so loveable. Easily, the most sweetly endearing record of the year.

3. IDLES - Joy As An Act of Resistance
Goddamn you, hipsters. Why did you have to give rise to a band that I should totally hate but who make the most beautifully complex, emotionally painful album of the year? If songs like June and Danny Nedelko doesn’t make you reassess your life then you’re probably beyond salvation.

2. Spanish Love Songs - Schmaltz
Every year there’s one album that I pick up for no particular reason, give it a few spins and fall hopelessly in love. In 2018 that was Spanish Love Songs. It’s a bit punk, a bit folk, a bit rock and every bit awesome. Urgent in its longing for something better, this is the kind of album that helps you grow as a person.

1. Bloomington Cutters - Humming Status, Singing Quo
One of the biggest questions for me over the past five years (yeah, I sweat the big stuff) is what would have happened had PUP followed up their glorious debut with something even better? Well, at last I have my answer. On Humming Status, Singing Quo, Bloomington Cutters unleash fourteen tracks of blistering, mangled pop brilliance packed with perfect melodies, panicked screams and guitars that could cut diamonds.