2019 In Review: And The Winner Is...

on Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Well, this is a first. A non-fiction book? Only 80 pages? Who even am I? In what turned out to be a pretty good reading year for me - 129 books (dammit I hate not finishing on a round number) - it was Édouard Louis's tiny gem that stood out from all the others. Sure, it might be short, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for with an abundance of depth, heart and rage. Those familiar with Louis's previous two books will no doubt have expected something incendiary and urgent, but what might surprise readers is just how tender this book is. Gone is the artifice of autofiction. Who Killed My Father is straight-up memoir, which Louis deftly uses to build towards a jaw-dropping J'Accuse-style denouement.

It begins with Louis returning to the dull, depressed town in which he grew up, to visit his dying father. The two have had a fraught relationship; Louis is a prodigiously talented, gay firebrand. His father is thoroughly working class, a product (and victim) of the crushing machinery of French capitalism. For a long time he simply couldn't understand or accept his son. Through reflections on his childhood and teen years, as well as the visit itself, Louis charts the steady decline of a proud man. It is a sad, painful march towards what could be ultimately viewed as a meaningless death.

What might have been a wholly glum undertaking is lifted to the realm of high art by Louis's ability to find courage and dignity in his father's ordinary existence. And, in a transformation that might strikes some readers as surreal as Gregor Samsa's (it's worth noting that this almost reads like a counterpoint to Kafka's Letter To My Father), Louis's dad rises above his unsophisticated prejudices to love his son, and genuinely try to understand him. Louis, in turn, comes to understand and appreciate his father.

All of this alone would have made Who Killed My Father an incredible book. Louis, however, is not satisfied to leave his father's sad fate unaccounted for. And so we are treated to the most ferocious, intellectually satisfying and downright brilliant critique of the French class structure that you're likely to encounter. It's worth noting that the title does not end with a question mark. Louis isn't trying to discover who killed his father. He knows. The book, therefore, is an indictment, and a damning one at that. These are not words. They are lightning bolts. The last few pages had me crying with rage, and sobbing at the pure act of love all I had read represented. There aren't many books I can say changed the way I think about the world. This is one of them.

Happy New Year everyone. Here's hoping 2020 brings our world a little closer to decency, kindness and justice.

2019 In Review: The Final Countdown

on Monday, December 30, 2019
Crack out the sparklers, I'm vertical again. And I'm not sure if it's just the painkillers speaking or just how I always get when it comes to writing down my Top Ten but I feel like jumping up and down on a couch with excitement Tom Cruise style as I announce my favourite books of the year. But, let's face it, I'd probably put my back out again so I'll just sit here and type as usual.

10. The Trespassers by Meg Mundell
Have you ever wondered what Hitchcock might have made of Camus or Saramago if given half the chance? Me too! Well, I reckon the answer might lie in Meg Mundell's fantastic new novel, The Trespassers. It's spec fic awesomeness is abundance, where paranoia, claustrophobia and murder run rampant on the high seas and sharp social commentary simmers between the lines. As a highly original take on important issues like refugee policy, xenophobia, environmental degradation and corporate greed, The Trespassers really has it all. An excellent, layered novel that is an absolute ripper to read.

9. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
Ferocious, complex and deeply humane, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World is an extraordinary work of protest fiction. Shafak has a remarkable ability to empathise with her characters who, for the most part, dwell on the margins of Turkish society. As such, her meditation on the "disposability" of certain classes of people is nothing short of an excoriation. Finishing this book left me bereft, even with the sweet glimmer of beauty at its end. I still think it should have won the Booker.

8. The Parade by Dave Eggers
I blow hot and cold with Eggers. But the moment I saw this on the release horizon I had high hopes. Set in an unidentified, lawless country, it follows two Western contractors hired to clear a path to the capital. It's mostly a record of repartee between two completely unsuited companions, but there is something sinister lying underneath. An urgently modern fable, with lashings of Beckett and Kafka, an undercurrent of Kadare and a fistful of, well, Eggers, it drew me in only to punch me square in the jaw. With my favourite closing paragraph of the year, The Parade is easily Eggers's best work since What Is The What.

7. Bloomland by John Englehardt
Bloomland is a stunningly masterful reckoning of contemporary America. Innovative in the way it is told, perceptive in its understanding of desperation, grief and anger, and unadorned by cheap gimmickery (I'm looking at you, Shriver), I genuinely cannot think of a better novel about the scourge of school shootings than Bloomland.

6. Lanny by Max Porter
Like almost everyone who read Porter's extraordinary debut, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, I was very excited to see how he'd follow it up. Grief was such a singular work, its style unique and confounding in the best possible way, but it was also short. Could Porter sustain this kind of magic over the length of a novel? In a move that seemed almost tailored to my taste, what he gave us was a folk tale; a fable that deconstructs the form with its own traditional tools. Lanny is a breathtaking work of the imagination, rendered with stylistic gusto.

5. A Devil Comes To Town by Paulo Maurensig
Lampooning the world of writers and writing might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but it's bloody hard to pull off successfully. I can count on one hand the literary satires that really work - The Information by Martin Amis, um... um... At last I can add a second to the list with this incredibly funny, oddball tale. The conceit itself is a riot: a rural town in which everyone is a writer working on their manuscript, desperately hoping to be published, is visited by the devil in the form of a big city publisher. Petty rivalries spill over, jealousy abounds and each writer demeans him or herself worse than the last. It's absolutely absurd but, dare I say, it's also scarily accurate. Read it and weep with laughter.

4. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
Goldberg follows up her international bestseller, Bee Season, with this morally complex story of art, motherhood and ambition. Based loosely on a true story, and set against the restrictive social mores of post-War America, it charts the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of photographer Lillian Preston. Goldberg brilliantly presents it as the catalog to a posthumous exhibition at MOMA, annotated with recollections from her friends, lovers, curators and, of course, her daughter, naked childhood photos of whom precipitated the fall. A beautifully challenging, but ultimately redemptive and moving read.

3. The Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
A crushingly sad, yet hugely triumphant finale to Coetzee's Jesus trilogy. I think it took me until about halfway through this third book to finally understand his grand project, and wow is it a deep, existential one. Of course, I may be wrong - taken together, the three books are remarkably enigmatic - but I think he is asking this: Stripped of the things that we consider fundamental to personhood - a name, an identity, a home, family, friends, language, control over our minds and bodies, longevity, community, etc. - is there some intrinsic value in having lived? I'm not entirely certain of his answer, but it is clearly the profound fixation of somebody grappling with his own legacy as he reaches his later years. How might he be remembered? By who? And for what purpose? These are vexing questions for someone who, like Coetzee, has made a point of living a moral, activist life. That said, it might do well for anyone who dares wonder if their life was worthwhile to ask the same. Let's just hope that, as Coetzee might be obliquely suggesting, it's not some quixotic folly to suppose we've mattered at all

2. EEG by Daša Drndić
Could this be the most searing swan song ever written? Andreas Ban has failed to kill himself (you may remember Belladonna closing with his apparent suicide), and so his misanthropic disdain has only intensified. Sick, exhausted and pissed off, he continues to rail against everything and everyone he hates, while trying to wrench the faceless, nameless victims - those who history usually forgets - from the abyss of memory. Drndić, who died last year, bids us farewell (read: gives us the middle finger) with a veritable evisceration of our species' propensity for barbarity, brimming with the moral ferocity, dark humour and panoramic history readers have come know and love (or should I say fear?). A dense, unflinching masterpiece.

2019 In Review: Some Books I Loved (Part 2)

on Friday, December 27, 2019
Greetings from the very Tiger Balmy sickbed! Turns out 2019 gave us a great crop of books. I wasn't expecting this list to be so long and I'm not even down to my Top 10. I still hope to read four or five books before the year is out so the list might grow yet. But for now, here's a bunch more books I loved this year.

The Diver's Game by Jesse Ball
Jesse Ball can do no wrong and here he out Attwoods Attwood with a terrifyingly plausible take on an alternative present. For fans, think of it as a companion of sorts to The Curfew.

Doggerland by Ben Smith
I haven't delved into the whole cli-fi thang anywhere near as much as I'd like to, but from my limited experience I have to say, Doggerland is bloody excellent. Bleak, propulsive, frightening and eerily believable, it had an almost Cormac McCarthyesque darkness in the relationship between the three characters. One of very few books that I literally could not put down. Also, I couldn't help but wonder whether this is what Waterworld might have been like if it that steaming shit-heap of a film had actually been good.

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández
I have a strange obsession with The Disappearances and this is one of the most beautiful and moving stories about that terrible time in Chile's history I've read. Centred around a group of children who remember a classmate who one day stops turning up to school, and the infamous Caso Degollados case, it frames the horrors from a child's perspective, giving the whole thing a wide-eyed clarity that more worldly, jaded narratives simply could not. Gorgeous and chilling.

Halibut On The Moon by David Vann
Several harrowing, soul-crushingly bleak and excruciatingly intense novels down the line, we might just have hit "Peak Vann". Halibut On The Moon sees this master of the existential abyss coming full circle, revisiting the event that inspired his incredible first novel-in-stories, Legend of A Suicide, and shaded all those that followed. Imagining the final few days of his father's life, days that we as readers already know will end in suicide, Vann demonstrates unparalleled insight into a mind tumbling over the edge. That he is able to mine such deeply personal trauma is remarkable. That he does it to such great effect, without melodrama, judgement or self-pity, is truly extraordinary.

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
At this point in her career, Deborah Levy really can't do any wrong and this, in my opinion, is her best novel yet. It's high concept sliding doors as historical stocktake. Read it to see just how exciting contemporary literature can be.

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy
Speaking of exciting, this little novel absolutely blew me away with its structural innovation, smashing down the wall between the author and the work they produce. Exquisite Cadavers is a dual narrative. Its primary (imagined) story is about Karim, a Tunisian immigrant, and Maya, his English wife. Struggling to make ends meet, and in the face of constant casual racism, theirs is a love circumscribed by the realities of Brexit-era London. Meanwhile, in the margins, Kandasamy tells her own story of writing the book, giving us a glimpse into the way her own life and observations - particularly of the abysmal treatment of women, political dissidents and minorities in Modi's India - inform Karim and Maya's story. Absolutely astounding.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
I was hand sold this by a local bookseller who knows my taste and thought that, even though I don't read a great deal of science fiction, I'd love it. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a series of linked stories about Adriane, an intergalactic explorer who finds a different planet/system in each chapter. Unsurprisingly, each is significantly different and brings new, often morally challenging, considerations to her voyage. What makes the book brilliant though is what's going on in the background. As the stories progress, Chambers drops little hints that things on earth aren't going quite so well and that Adriane just might be the last person alive. A quite ingenious book and an excellent illustration of why it's worth getting to know your local booksellers. Hi Grumpy Swimmer!

Call Me Evie by JP Pomare
It's been a long time between drinks for me when it comes to reading a thriller but I'm pretty damn happy this was the one that broke the drought. Dark, propulsive, sinister and downright great fun.

Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom by Ariel Burger
We are all familiar with Elie Wiesel the great Holocaust survival novelist, Nobel Laureate and humanitarian activist. Yet Wiesel considered himself first and foremost a teacher. Burger, who was Wiesel's teaching assistant for several years, gives us unparalleled insight into this aspect of the great man's life. It is a deeply moving account of a mentorship that evolves into friendship, full of touching personal reflections and important lessons from a master.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
Is it possible for a book to be propelled almost entirely by the quality of its writing? Strip away the lyrical splendour of The Topeka School and you've got the story of a nerdy high school debater and two shitty marriages (his parents and their friends). Ok, I'm being somewhat reductive - there are issues of small town dynamics, the pressure of having "famous" parents (or being that parent), and the genesis of childhood violence - but still... Now, back to the writing. Holy shit, is Ben Lerner the most effortless prose stylist of the modern generation? Seriously, this book could have been about moss growing in a cave and, in his hands, it would still have been better than most of the books I've read this year

Well that just about covers them all. Next up, the Top Ten. But before I do, a quick shout out to two albums that I just discovered and that were too late to make my list of favourites for the year. I'm absolutely loving the new Reaganomics album, The Ageing Punk. A total explosion of fun, even if it does hit a little close to home.

Also, Moon Tiger released Crux back in August and I totally missed it. Thanks to a few Top 10 lists I've been reading over the past few days I went and checked it out. Wow. Think Scurrilous-era Protest the Hero, but a bit more fun and proggy. Definitely one of my best new discoveries of the year. Awe At All Angels has fast become one of my favourite songs of the year.

2019 In Review: Some Books I Loved (Part 1)

on Wednesday, December 25, 2019
Well, I've fucked my back in Singapore which is making this holiday far less festive than I'd anticipated. On the upside, it's allowed me plenty of time to consider the books I've loved over the past 12 months and cobble together something resembling a Top 10 for the year. As usual, that will come in the last couple of days of the month. One thing that struck me while going over my list (124 books and counting) is that there were quite a few novels I really dug but can't include in the final countdown (dada da daaa dada dadada). With that in mind, I thought I'd do some extra posts to crap on about them. Apologies to those of you who are friends on mine on Goodreads because I'll mostly just be copying and pasting my reviews from there. But hey, I'm hurting over here, and the best I can do is channel eight-year-old me with scissors and a stick of glue. Note: As there were a lot of books I liked, I'm dividing this over two posts.

The Nancys by RWR McDonald
An absolute delight from the very start, The Nancys took me back to my days of obsessively devouring crime fiction. Not only is it a good old fashioned murder mystery of the exact kind I have always loved, but it possesses a genuine warmth and laugh-out-loud humour not often associated with the genre. I'll avoid any plot description so I don't stumble into spoiler territory but, gotta say, I loved it.

A Mistake by Carl Shuker
I picked this excellent little novel up on a recent trip to New Zealand and, wow, what a great read. A smart, unsentimental look at the fallibility of those who we, quite literally, trust with our lives. A Mistake could easily veered into the realm of melodrama but Shuker avoids the sensational to look at the human impact, as well as the frantic arse-covering of the bureaucratic machine that turns the health care engine.

The Trap by Ludovic Bruckstein
Bruckstein might just be the least known of the Holocaust survivor novelists. That he has languished for years on the outer is a travesty. The Trap is a disorientating, cleverly constructed gem of a novella, with a twist at once hilarious and heartbreaking. The second novella, The Rag Doll, is more conventional in style but is no less moving. It is also, sadly, very timely. In many ways it reminded me of the two Hanses - Keilson and Fallada. If you dig them, Bruckstein is a must.

Lucky Ticket by Joey Bui
I was fortunate enough to blurb this extraordinary debut and, while I could go on for hours about it, I'll simply add that you have to read it. It's bloody great (apparently "bloody great" is frowned upon as wording for a cover quote).

Dawn by Selahattin Demirtas A truly incandescent work of prison literature, this story collection soars not for its insight into the life of a political prisoner (there isn't much of that at all) but for its near perfect ability to see into the souls of the regular people whose stories it tells. From the light touch of magical realism where pigeons converse with men in a prison yard, to the brutal realism of the title story (quite possibly the best albeit most harrowing thing I've ever read about so-called honour killings), Dawn is just flawless tale after flawless tale. Astounding.

Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar
Astounding in its ability to both touch and unsettle, Wolfe Island is a rain dance beneath the clouds of the Apocalypse.

The Hollow Bones by Leah Kaminsky
From the embers of history, Kaminsky weaves a cracking tale of adventure, competing loyalties and the folly of sacrificing reason on the ideological altar.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr
I'd heard a lot of good things about You Will Be Safe Here and was worried that I might be disappointed when I finally got around to reading it. How wrong I was! Harrowing in what it depicts but beautiful in the way it does so, this exceeded my expectation. A morally complex window into silenced histories (I knew only a little about the Boer Wars and nothing about the SA Conversion Camps), in which Barr avoids the temptation to tie up loose ends for the sake of comforting the reader. Great book, brilliantly executed.

Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard
Well, hasn't YA lit changed since my day? And for the far, far better. It's hard to add to the raves that keep getting heaped upon Invisible Boys so I'll have to settle with reiterating them. Yes, it's blisteringly good. Yes, it's fucking real. Yes, it repeatedly punches you in the guts. Yes, it's ALL THE FEELS AT ONCE. Oh, and most definitely yes, it's genuinely IMPORTANT. But most of all I adored it for the beautiful things it says about love, friendship, family, finding yourself and the embarrassing clumsiness (whether we like to admit it or not) of being a teenager.

Thumb Wrestling a Paper Giant: The Decade in Review (Part 2)

on Tuesday, December 24, 2019
Only a few days left so I figured I better get my shit together and finish this countdown. I've spent the last few days incessantly juggling the order of the Top 10 and, really, but for the top three there could have been any permutation of what's below. So, here they are: my ten favourite books of the... um... I still have no clue what it's called. Bring on the 20s!

10. The Jesus Trilogy by J.M. Coetzee (2013/2016/2019)
Okay, okay. I know I'm cheating here. But it wasn't until I'd read the final instalment that I came to understand Coetzee's greater project with his Jesus books and I now consider it impossible to view them individually. Indeed, if you do, The Childhood of Jesus (the first salvo) really collapses in the second half and wouldn't stand a chance of making this list on its own. Viewed as a whole, however, it's truly breathtaking and completely puts to rest fears that he had somehow diminished after moving to Australia. Using the surreal fable form that made Waiting For the Barbarians so incredible, Coetzee lands a hefty blow to the soul with this examination of life's true value. The Schooldays of Jesus reads like a philosophical murder mystery and The Death of Jesus rivals any of the great existential novels of yesteryear. Think Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy but more magical, timeless and, dare I say better. Read as one, I now suspect Jesus might be Coetzee's masterpiece.

9. What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (2016)
My 2016 Book of the Year, 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. His new book, Cleanness comes out soon and promises to "revisit and expand" the world of his debut and I, for one, could not be more excited!

8. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012)
There have been some great war novels in the last ten years, the majority having been written by returned soldiers. Phil Klay's Redeployment (ok, it's short stories but whatever), Roy Scranton's War Porn and David Abrams's Fobbit immediately spring to mind. But none shook my soul like Kevin Powers's incendiary debut. The Yellow Birds draws on his own life as a poet and active soldier to craft a riveting tale of one man's struggle to come to terms with the death of his friend during service in Iraq. Not a single war cliche pollutes the perfect prose. The emotion is raw, the anger palpable, the depth of humanity staggering. Check out my original review here.

7. Melisande! What Are Dreams by Hillel Halkin (2012)
Another quiet book that has firmly lodged itself in my heart, Melisande! What Are Dreams? is a book that seems to have been mostly overlooked but thoroughly deserves to be considered a classic. It is, to my knowledge, the only novel written by the acclaimed translator of the Hebrew and Yiddish greats, and one that he wrote quite late in the game. Little surprise then that it is so deeply imbued with the kind of cultural and literary intelligence that very few debut novelists could ever muster. A melancholic story of a marriage in decline, Melisande! What Are Dreams? is one of the most tender meditations on the nature of human relations that I have ever read.

6. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
By now the story behind Nunez's National Prize-winning breakthrough is well known. A distinguished, decades-long career of consistently excellent but commercially unremarkable novels and then, suddenly, she's heralded an overnight success. As I wrote in the previous post (I only read it this year), The Friend is all the feels you could hope to find in a book. The story of a woman who is left to care for her friend and mentor's oversized dog after the friend's suicide, it is in turns tragic and funny but always warm and insightful. There is a mind-bending twist, so cleverly executed that it spoils nothing to mention it here; only to note that it is a moment of true narrative genius. I can see myself returning to The Friend over the years like one would a favourite song.

5. The Town by Shaun Prescott (2017)
A debut novel published by a small local press, The Town might just be my favourite Australian novel of all time. It's hard to describe this surreal masterpiece in a way that comes close to doing it justice. Suffice to say, this story of an unnamed writer working on a book about disappearing towns who turns up to a small unnamed town just as bits of it begin to disappear, ranks up there in the pantheon of brilliantly absurd works by Kafka, Bernhard and Borges. Picked up by Faber in the UK and FSG in America (it is finally getting released in 2020), it was my 2017 Book of the Year and came very close to being my favourite of the decade. Check out my Book of the Year citation here.

4. Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill (2014)
It's funny looking back over my top ten lists from each year and thinking that, while I didn't get the order wrong at the time, some books have edged their way up in my memory such that they have lasted in a way that others on the same list simply have not. In 2014, Jenny Offill's masterpiece in miniature landed at number five. Half a decade later and it remains a book that I treasure more so than most that were above it. This autopsy of an ordinary failed marriage is so exquisitely rendered that I melt every time I spare it a thought (which, I should add is often - basically, I'm 60% puddle). Not a wasted word to be found. Check out my original review here.

3. The Infatuations by Javier Marias (2011/13)
When was the last time you read a novel that you thought was worthy of being held up alongside the traditional classics? Marias's sprawling story of love, friendship, death and mourning was my 2013 Book of the Year and probably stands as the most distinguished of the decade. It is a big book, both in size and substance, but one that is endlessly rewarding. As I said when I first reviewed it, it's the only time I've had an inkling of how it might have felt to be alive when Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities were first published, Oh, and Marias should have won the Nobel before Handke. Just saying.

2. Trieste by Daša Drndić (2012)
If I had to name the book that had the greatest impact on me as a writer and influenced the way I viewed literature, it would unquestionably be Daša Drndić's unrelenting revelation of a novel, Trieste. Framed as the reminiscences of an old woman waiting for a son she had long thought dead, it expands endlessly into a kaleidoscopic overview of 20th century horrors. Structurally innovative, encyclopaedic in knowledge and unflinching in its indictment of human depravity, Trieste proved Drndić the true master (yes, above Sebald) of the documentary fictional form. If this list were about literary achievement alone, Trieste would be my definite number one. It most certainly was my Book of the Year for 2012, the best year for fiction in the entire decade. I only wish she was still here to laugh at me saying all this. Check out my Book of the Year citation here.

1. Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball (2014)
I expect it comes as a big surprise to just about nobody that Jesse Ball would have written my favourite book of the decade. Hell, he was responsible for three of my books of the year (2011, 2014 and 2018). Of those, it was Silence Once Begun that I've picked as the greatest, a bona fide work of staggering genius (sorry, DE) that pays homage to Abe and Endo then transcends them both. The central conceit - a man walks into a police station and confesses to a string of disappearances (and, one is made to assume, murders) before consigning himself to absolute silence. Thus he remains throughout questioning, throughout trial, after conviction, all the way to execution. And se we hear the "testimony" of other players in the story, some likeable, some sinister, all with varying degrees of reliability. You can check out my original review here but, seriously, get off your computer and read the novel instead. Silence Once Begun is the distillation of all that is great about Jesse Ball, and cemented him as the single most exciting novelist of our times. If you haven't read it you pretty much wasted the... um... Jesus Christ can someone just tell me what we called that decade?

2019 In Review: A Fistful of Listicles

on Tuesday, December 17, 2019
Thought I'd be quicker getting through all this but I'm still juggling my Top 10 of the decade - I have the books, just can't nail the order. In the meantime I figured I should return to regular programming and have a look at some of my highlights from this year.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
Devastatingly, achingly beautiful. I was in awe from the outset, marvelling at just how many profound things Nunez has to say about grief, writing and the bittersweetness of having a dog. In some ways, it reminded me (in spirit at least) of Magda Szabo's The Door or John Williams's Stoner. It's quiet and subtle but packs an emotional punch that likely measures on the Richter Scale. I kind of wish it hadn't ended.

Mad Shadows by Marie-Claire Blais (1959(
I stumbled across Blais during a random Facebook conversation and thought I should check her out. Pretty glad I did! The story of a horribly dysfunctional family devoid of any moral compass, Mad Shadows is a thoroughly nasty, unpleasant, misanthropic delight. I loved it! Thanks James Bradley and your strangely eclectic social feed.

Men In The Sun by Ghassan Khanafani (1978)
Leaving aside the controversies over Khanafani himself, Men In the Sun is an astounding collection of stories that get to the heart of Palestinian life in the 60s and 70s. Khanafani's greatest strength as a chronicler of the oppressed is his ability to convey the struggles without resorting to easy set pieces or tropes. The title story, in particular - almost novella length - is a masterpiece.

The Animal Gazer by Edgardo Franzosini (2015)
There's nothing like an obscure historical footnote to get me excited about a novel's subject. Here Franzosini zeroes in on Rembrandt Bugatti, probably most remembered (if at all) as brother to the motoring legend, but a strange and intriguing figure in his own right. Bugatti was a sculptor of considerable talent and some renown, who spent much time at the zoo watching the animals before sculpting them. Interspersed with photos of his sculptures, The Animal Gazer considers the ravages of war as seen through the eyes of a very gentle soul. When the Antwerp Zoo began killing their animals at the outbreak of World War 1, it was all too much for Bugatti, setting off his descent into the suicidal abyss. A sad and timely story.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller(1949)
Is there a modern play so tense and soul crushing, yet so brilliant as this? Not a word wasted. About 15 years ago, I saw Brian Dennehy as Willy on Broadway and was totally gutted then, but had not actually read it until this year. Took me a few days to catch my breath.

Not sure how the year got away from me but, well, here we are. Yet again, I'm left with a lumbering pile of books I bought with the very best of intentions. And, yes, I still hope to read them all (Krasznahorkai will be book number one for 2020). Alas, this is just the top third of the pile. Expect to see the others in newspaper photos of the collapsed tower that crushed me to death one day. Without further ado, I hang my head in deep, deep shame and present this picture:

I don't think I've been this excited for a haul of forthcoming books in years! I barely know where to start, but I think I'd have to say the one that has me literally frothing at the mouth is Patrick Allington's Rise and Shine. If I gave you a list of all my favourite things in a book and asked you to write it and then you came back with something even better than I'd hoped, there's a good chance you'd give me Rise and Shine. No pressure or anything! Elizabeth Tan follows up the brilliant Rubik with Smart Ovens for Lonely People. I have an ARC on my shelf and it's taking all my strength not to drop everything else and read it. You might remember Timur Vermes's hilariously outrageous Look Who's Back from a couple of years back. Well, he might just have done it again with his madcap novel about a reality show set in a refugee camp, The Hungry and the Fat. Robbie Arnott's Flames was the best piece of Australian magical realism in living memory, and he's following it up with what promises to be the equally brilliant The Rain Heron. It's recently sold to FSG in the States so, yeah, it's going to be huge. Praise the book gods, Jenny Offill is back with Weather. If it's even a fraction as good as Dept of Speculation it might already be a contender for my book of the year. Speaking of, BOTY winner Garth Greenwell returns to the world of his sublime What Belongs To Us in Cleanliness. The buzz is insanely good so I'll be jumping on that the moment it comes out. Australia's finest cli-fi prophet, James Bradley, returns with Ghost Species and I can't help but feel what he has to say has never been more important. Seems like I was lamenting Charles Yu's recent silence only a few days ago and this morning I find out he has a new novel in the pipeline, Interior Chinatown. I'm a little wary, but Yu is so damn funny that I'm hoping a story that doesn't hugely appeal to me (it sounds a bit too much like Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer) can be salvaged through its execution. If you dig a smart thriller, you'll likely be as excited as I am for JP Pomare's newy, In the Clearing which promises to fuck with your mind even more than Call Me Evie. And yes, in case you think I've forgotten, Hilary Mantel rounds out her trilogy with The Mirror and the Light which means I can finally get around to reading the other two.

I've also had the immense pleasure of reading an advance copy of The Slaughterman's Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovitz. It's an absolute romp - think the Russian classics with a shot of sly Yiddish humour - and expect me to be practically forcing you all to read it when it is released. The puffs have been streaming in from across the literary spectrum - Gary Shteyngart and George Szirtes both loved it. So will you.

I had high hopes for music in 2019. So many of my favourite bands were putting out new albums, some after a very long hiatus. Unfortunately, I was mostly disappointed. There were some pretty good records but most felt phoned in by bands in mid-to-late career slumps (I'm looking at you, Dragonforce). In previous years, I struggled to limit my list to 20. This year, I barely got to ten.

Morbid Stuff by PUP
PUP's self-titled debut still stands as my favourite album of the past ten years. It was the shot of adrenalin a very lacklustre music world needed. Their sophomore offering was pretty good but a bit dull. I wasn't sure what to expect of Morbvid Stuff. Was it too much to hope that they might rediscover that spark that made them so bloody exciting? Ah... yes. And then some. Jagged belter after jagged belter, PUP shred like there's no tomorrow. Dark, funny and insanely catchy this was far and above my album of the year.

Ghosteen by Nick Cave
At the risk of committing some kind of Australian musical high treason, I'm just going to put it out that and say I don't get the fuss about Nick Cave. That's not to say I haven't liked some of his albums, and I totally dig his position as a countercultural icon, but I certainly would not consider myself a fan. Well, way to go Nick. You've thoroughly confounded me now! I... I... kinda love Ghosteen, an album as confronting as it is lush and transcendent. Cave's poetry is at its finest, and I can't help but feel that this is some kind of microscopically detailed mapping of his soul in the aftermath of deep, personal tragedy. It might just be his best album. It is definitely his most pained.

Tommy and June by Tommy and June
The true identities of Tommy and June remain punk rock's worst kept secret, but whoever they are, these two managed to crank out the sweetest, most listenable folky, punky, poppy album of the year. Think Simon and Garfunkel meets, I dunno, Useless ID and Old Man Markley (*cough cough*). I keep going back and it never fails to make me smile, some five hundred listens later.

Love Keeps Kicking by Martha
Looking for the best jangly pop from a band you didn't know existed? Well, look no further! I was drawn to this album by it's totally silly, underwhelming artwork and was blown away by the infectious guitar pop I found. Check it out. I guarantee it will be the soundtrack to your summer (unless you live north of the equator, in which case shut up, you already had summer).

War Music by Refused
If there's an upside to whenever the world looks like it's totally turning to shit, it's that righteous anger tends to breed incredible protest music. If one album stood out on that front, it was Refused, who absolutely hit it out of the park with their incendiary new album, War Music. Chaotic, abrasive grooves. Angry, thoughtful, intelligent lyrics. Denis Blixen doing what he does best. A killer album for the end times.

Don't Worry by Mobina Galore
God I love this band. The perfect combination of snarling ferocity and infectious melody. And it all sounds so bloody huge. To think they're only a two piece. Mobina Galore have consistently improved with each release, which is saying something given how bloody great they were from the outset. Don't Worry is another huge step forward. Blisteringly good.

Fear Inoculum by Tool
It was going to take nothing short of a miracle for prog metal's mad scientists to meet the hype surrounding their first album in what seems like forever. So was it worth the wait? Um... hell yes! If you've ever wondered what it would be like to be alive when one of the classical greats unveiled a symphony, this is about as close as you'll ever get. It's a layered work of such incredible complexity (try counting out any of the songs) that every listen brings a thousand new sensations. That said, I still prefer Ænema.

Railer by Lagwagon
It was a year that saw releases from some of the veteran punk rock greats. Bad Religion's Age of Unreason was decent (notwithstanding its atrocious cover art). Good Riddance put out Thoughts and Prayers, a good, but not great follow-up to their sensational comeback, Peace In Our Time. But it was only Lagwagon that put out an instant classic that can stand proudly among their best. This is the Lagwagon of old - think Duh or Trashed - having a blast ripping through a bunch of killer tunes. Opener Stealing Light is a revelation, one of my favourite Lagwagon songs of all time. Holy shit, that outro!

Gigantic Sike by Mean Jeans
Ramones-punk done right. Funny, silly, irreverent and urgent. I feel like these guys have been hovering in the ether for years waiting to release something this good. A total, joyous breeze. Oh, and apparently the number in Party Line works. It's all part of some huge practical joke by the band. What legends.

Sonic Citadel by Lightning Bolt
I'm not even going to try to explain this one. Fucked if I understand it. Just... just... listen. I'll be hiding in a corner, shivering.

And if you'll just indulge me a moment of schmaltz, I also need to give a shout out to my song of the year: Follow Your Heart by Craig's Brother. I already totally loved this when I found out he'd written it for his teenage daughter. And then he filmed her reaction to it and made it the film clip. Seriously, dad goals at their finest. Best song of the year with the best film clip. Fight me.

The Worm Awakens: The Decade In Review (Part 1)

on Friday, December 13, 2019
Well, it’s been close on a year and my resolution to reinvigorate this here blog has come to naught. Almost a hundred and twenty books down and not a peep from me, even when Jesse Ball put out something new. Seriously, I might as well have been in a coma. Anyhoooo... a few days ago I woke from a fever dream with the revelation that I was ready to start again, to venture back out from my hole of literary self-absorption (I’ve spent the last two years galavanting about the place spruiking my own book) and write about some novels I’ve loved. And what better way to start than with a decade in review: my top 20 books of the… um… teens? Post-naughties? Pre-twenties? Shit, has anyone actually worked out what we call the last ten years? But I digress.

On average, I read about 120 books (overwhelmingly novels) a year. Sometimes more than that, occasionally fewer. I used to keep a detailed book diary but, being the technological troglodyte that I am, it was on the local drive of my old computer that one day just cacked it on me and, well, here I am, left to rely on my 8th grade maths skills. So can we all just smile and agree I've read somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 books since 2010? Sifting through my Bookworm posts, I’d forgotten quite how much I'd loved some of them and now I’m desperate to reread them. If only I had the time. Guess I’ll have to settle for splashing about in the jacuzzi of nostalgia that is a Top 20 list.

Before I do, though, I want to give a quick shout out to three non-fiction books that absolutely blew me away. First up, Patti Smith’s stunning memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids (2010). Has there ever been a better reflection on New York's countercultural boom? Ten years on and I still think about that beautiful friendship, its triumphant marriage of art and humanity, and how tragically it ended. Next up, Behrouz Bouchani’s incendiary prison memoir (is that even the right category?), No Friend But The Mountains (2018). A damning indictment of contemporary Australia, made even more relevant in the wake of the current regime’s doubling down on inhumanity. Bouchani is the true north to Australia’s moral compass, and his book is as important as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago or Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. Finally, one of the few books that have fundamentally changed the way I think about the world, Who Killed My Father (2019) by Édouard Louis. I’ll have more to say about this in the coming weeks, but Louis’s J’Accuse against France’s capitalist structure and the collateral damage it makes of its workers is heartbreaking, infuriating and as close to downright perfect as any modern political tract could possibly ever be.

Alright, on to my Top 20 of the Decade. Now, I'm not claiming these are the best books written in the past ten years but they are most certainly my favourites. Kicking things off with numbers 20 to 11:

20. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (2014)
Hands down the funniest book of the decade. The premise alone is downright hilarious - neurotic Jewish guy escapes to a dilapidated house in the country only to find an elderly Anne Frank hiding in his attic, working on the follow-up to her diary. But it is the battle of wits that follows that will have you howling with laughter, with the odd pause to wonder just how sacrilegious Auslander’s whole undertaking really is. Unadulterated, irreverent genius.

19. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (2014)
This beautifully wistful novel about an old woman locked in her basement in war-torn Beirut, dutifully translating classics got me right in the feels. Aaliya is one of the most endearing characters I’ve met in a book, and her witty, sometimes cutting opinions on literature and life are just marvellous. Read it and feel better about the world. Full review here.

18. How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (2010)
A lovelorn time machine repairman reminisces about his life and the relationships that have shaped it. And how he might use his shitty job (it ain’t as glamorous as it sounds) to change it. Yu has been disappointingly quiet of late but, hey, when you pull out a masterpiece this early in your career, why not sit back and take a break? Or, you know, shoot yourself far into the future and let the people of 2374 enjoy your next outing. Full review here.

17. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler (2015)
In the year that everyone fell over themselves to praise Hanya Yanigihara’s massive gut punch, A Whole Life, it was a similarly titled, much smaller book that really did it for me. Seethaler’s quiet, spare tale of an unremarkable man watching the horrors of the 20th century unfold around him in the Austrian alps is absolutely extraordinary. A masterclass in narrative containment.

16. The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray (2016)
I don’t know what it is with me and these bonkers science-tinged benders, but god I seem to love them. Maybe it’s just that their subjects tend to be so far out of my wheelhouse, or that they touch on familiar themes in new and exciting ways. Or just that, when done right, they are a magnificent joy to read! Whatever. All you need to know is this: John Wray wrote the best of them. Taking in everything from theoretical physics, kooky cults, pickling (of the gherkin variety), the Holocaust and the culture wars, The Lost Time Accidents absolute floored me. It’s a riveting, joyous romp of a read. Full review here.

15. The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (2013)
Yeah, yeah. You loved A Little Life. You thought it was the best book of the decade. Well, you’re wrong. Fight me. Granted, it was pretty good but face it, Bucko, it wasn't THAT good. It wasn’t even Yanagihara’s best book. That honour goes to the morally complex, deeply unsettling The People In Trees, in which Yanagihara asks one of the most important questions of modern times: how much can we forgive genius for the moral failings of its vessel? And trust me, when it comes to this particular genius - a scientist who discovers a tribe who might possess the secret to eternal youth - the failings are colossal. Full review here.

14. Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric (2015)
Winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Award, Black Rock White City is one of the greatest invocations of immigrant life in Australia ever put to paper. Wrapped in a carapace of existential mystery, this astounding novel is ultimately a meditation on displacement, marginalisation, casual racism and what it means to be Australian in the wake of national and personal trauma. It was my book of the year in 2015, and remains a favourite that I revisit from time to time. Full review here.

13. Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf (2015)
I was late to the Haruf party. He’d already died before I read a word. But there was something about the collective grief at his passing, and the air of celebration about this, his swan song, that left me with no choice but to pick it up. Simple in what it has to say - two elderly neighbours find companionship (or is it love) following the deaths of their partners - it is Haruf’s delicate style and gentle, gorgeous prose that renders this little book a masterpiece of human connection and compassion. Full review here.

12. The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard (2011)
You know how some books just lodge themselves in your soul and refuse to leave? How they keep ebbing and flowing in the tide of your consciousness, causing you to suddenly think of them at the least likely of times? Well, I can’t think of any book that does this more for me than Hannah Pittard’s incredible debut. The novel traces the lives of a group of small-town kids in the years following the abduction of their friend. From teenage life into adulthood, it tracks the ripples of grief while proffering some truly profound insights into the way our moral understanding evolves over time. A remarkable book, and one of the finest debut novels I’ve ever read.

11. Census by Jesse Ball (2018)
There are many ways to honour the memory of someone you have loved and lost but nothing I’ve read comes close to the surreal beauty of Census, Jesse Ball’s homage to his brother. The references are oblique; this story of an old man taking his son across a strange landscape as he tries to make a census of its populace captures the spirit of Ball’s love more than any straightforward memoir could possibly have done. It is a novel of enormous heart, and one that chokes me up every time I venture back into its pages. Full review here.

Well, that's enough to digest for one sitting. Check back soon for my Top 10.