2021 In Review: And the Winner Is...

on Thursday, December 30, 2021
Mea Culpa. I've spent the past few months so smugly assured of my book of the year that I didn't even bother to check its publication date. Until yesterday. And hoist me on my own petard if it wasn't published in 2020. Never fear, though. My characteristic buffoonery has given me the perfect opportunity to elevate another latecomer to book of 2021, but I still want to celebrate both these strange little masterpieces in my Book of the Year Post because, hell, they both totally blew me away. And so I give you my two favourite novels of 2021, even if one of them wasn't actually from this year: The Employees by Olga Ravn and Mona by Pola Oloixarac.

To be honest I don't even really know where to begin with Olga Ravn's International Booker-nominated novella, The Employees (trans. Marin Aitken). Originally conceived as a companion piece to an art exhibition, it charts the travels of the Six Thousand Ship as it drifts away from planet New Discovery with a host of strange artefacts. Each chapter is told by a different crew member (human, robot and something in between, identified only by number); and examines one of these artefacts as part of a report to some higher authority. Filled with corporate jargon, dreamscapes, triggered memories, sensory descriptions and existential philosophy it gels and chaffs in equal measure, making for an entirely unique reading experience, an expirement in transhumanism. Nothing I can say here will do it justice, though perhaps my original review was my best attempt: I'm not sure what the heck this was but it was my favourite whatever the heck it was that I've read this year. Think Ursula K Le Guin meets Upton Sinclair, refracted through a surreal, fragmented prism. Just extraordinary.

Rare is the satirical novel that can skillfully balance humour and social commentary, and do it without ever showing its inner machinations. Even rarer is the one that can sustain it until the closing page. I can probably count them on three fingers, and only because the outer two act as parenthesese. Mona by Pola Oloixarac (trans. Adam Morris)is by far the funniest book I've read in years, a perfect lambasting of all that is ridiculous about the literary life, particularly when it comes to festivals and prizes. In Oloixarac's sites, no sacred literary cow is safe. If you want a glimpse into the arrogance, insecurity, petty jealousy and sexual lasciviousness (well, mostly desperation) that go with being a writer, and want to laugh your arse off while you do it, look no further. Having lived through way too many of these carnivals of the absurd, I can vouch for just how right Oloixarac gets it. Everything about Mona is a pure fucking joy to read (pun intended), right up to its batshit crazy magical realist horror ending. There is no limit to what Oloixarac will do, no risk she isn't willing to take. That it all pays off is testament to her brilliance and the perfectly contained genius of this little novel. What a book to round out the unpredctable hellride that was 2021.

And that's it. Hope you have a great new year, wherever the fuck you're hiding from the plague, and that 2022, if nothing else, is filled with awesome reading. Hopefully, I'll be back here more often. But then again I say that every year. Oh, well. Might see you soon. Thanks for visiting.

2021 In Review: It's The Final Countdown

on Wednesday, December 29, 2021
One hundred and ninety books and it's come to the pointy end. Here are nine of the ten books I loved most in 2021.

10. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead.
Granted I haven't quite finished it, but I've read enough of this exuberant subversion of the high-flying, swashbucking tales of yore to have it sitting comfortably in my top ten. Reminiscent of old favourites like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Let The Great World Spin, it is a boldly joyous book, filled with grand setpieces, big characters and a plot that hurtles along with the aeronautic dynamism of the flying dreams that lie at its heart. It's also a salient reminder that good literary fiction can still be narrative-driven.

9. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
This book could have been a disaster. In fact, when I first heard Ishiguro was trying his hand at an artificial intelligence novel, my first thought was "Hasn't McEwan already punished us enough?" Thankfully, he rose to the occasion, giving us what I think is both his best book since (and a companion piece to) Never Let Me Go. Much like in that book, Klara and the Sun asks what it means to be human. This time, however, Ishiguro goes one step further and asks not only whether life has intrinsic value, but whether there really is such a thing as individuality. Does a person truly exist as an irreplaceable, irreducible individual or is that merely a sentimental construct that we take upon ourselves and then ascribe to those we love? In doing so Ishiguro touches on many of the cornerstones of our existential awareness: family, friendhsip, religion (particularly God, as represented by Klara's belief in the Sun), love and, of course, death.

8. The Promise by Damon Galgut
Back when I first read Catch 22, I marvelled at Heller's ability to frame the central conundrum in so many different ways. I had much the same feeling reading Galgut's Booker Prize winning novel of racial and social injustice. It didn't hurt that every shit fate that befell a member of the Swarts family has befallen the relative of someone I know. Yep, this book cut close to home. Quite coincidentally, I read it at the same time as I was watching The White Lotus, and couldn't help but feel they were companion pieces; excoriarting commentaries on (mostly white) privilege. Galgut has long sat on the periphery of South African literary royalty, never quite achieving the stature of Coetzee, Brink or Gordimer. The Good Doctor should have changed that, but at least this one now has.

7. Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas
Labyrinthine sentences wind us through an equally intricate story of fatherhood, identity and existence in an incresingly techno-fied world. This is daring literature at its finest: fun, playful, confounding and, at times, infuriating. It's the kind of book sure to send fans of Bernhard and Pessoa into fits of orgasmic bliss. Peppered with hilarious literary in-jokes, it struck me as a fitting successor to Vila-Matas's glorious Montano's Malady. I could read those two in continuous loop and be happy forever.

6. The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk
Umptten years in the offing, Jennifer Croft's English translation of Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob was probably the publishing event of 2021. Cited by the Nobel Committee in her citation, it is a massive book in every possible sense of the word. Charting the rise and fall of Jacob Frank,the second most famous false messiah in Jewish history, it is a polyvocal spectacular that draws on history, theology, philosophy and multiple storytelling traditions to explore the essence of language and its interpretation. It is, without question, a modern masterpiece.

5. Chasing Homer by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
It seems redundant to talk about anything by Krasznahorkai as "weird", but as a multimedia experiment, this novella was pretty fucking weird. Set against percussive soundscapes accessed through QR codes, it is a claustrophobic, paranoid foray into something resembling the world of cloak and dagger chase stories. I heard him read something tonally similar in New York a long while back and wonder if that was germ from which this grew. Whatever, it's a pretty good entry point for those wanting to dip their toe in to the great man's work. If only because it is almost accessible. Almost.

4. More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman
At this point, David Grossman can pretty much do nothing wrong. And even when he does (I didn't love A Horse Walks Into a Bar) he still wins awards for it. For me, More Than I Love My Life is a late career highlight. A complex, finely-tuned tale of motherhood, intergenerational trauma, storytelling and, well, love, it hinges on a human conundrum that is equal to, but possibly more relatable than, Sophie's Choice. And it was bloody refreshing to read a modern, deeply Jewish novel where the trauma is not Holocaust-related.

3. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr
One of the first books I read this year, The Prophets set the bar for 2021. The story of Isiah and Samuel, two slaves who fall in love on a plantation, it is beautiful, carnal, raw and bristling with righteous indignation in the face of insurmountable cruelty. In my review back in January I called it equal to the works of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and now, almost twelve months later, I stand by that. As I said, "Jones has the fiery clarity of, well, a prophet. What he has to say is, often, incendiary, consuming injustice in the flames of his ire." This is a book that just might have redefined a genre.

2. Assembly by Natasha Brown
So far as I'm concerned, zeitgeist books, almost by definition, suck. Everyone jumps on board, holding their literary "insider status" as some kind of wanky membership card. Like, seriously. What a farce. And so I came to this with extreme caution and... whoooooooaaaaaaah. Assembly is an exhilarating bomb placed beneath the classist, racist, misogynist, colonial foundations of British society and set off to spectacular effect. It's a revelation. A supernova. Sure, I've just become what I hate but, in this case, it was worth it.

2021 In Review: Notes From The Antipodes

on Sunday, December 26, 2021
This year I had the surreal and rather fun opportunity to sit on the judging panel for the fiction prize of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. More than anything, it gave me a great chance to read a truckload of Aussie novels - seventy-two of them to be precise. Believe me when I say, it was damn near impossible to narrow it down to a shortlist of six. I'm pretty thrilled with the ones we ended up picking and wholeheartedly recommend them all. In case you missed it, the shortlist is:

After Story by Larissa Behrendt
Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down
Echolalia by Briohny Doyle
The Dogs by John Hughes
Smokehouse by Melissa Manning
Permafrost by SJ Norman

You can check out all the books and see our judges' comments here.

For obvious reasons, I'm not including any Australian books in my Top 10 countdown this year, though I can say that at least three of them would definitely have made it. Whether or not they were shortlistees (or the winner) is for you to guess. Either way, here are a few other Australian novels that I absolutely loved but that unfortunately didn't make the final VPLA cut.

First up, literary fiction. Miles Allinson returned with In Moonland, an exquisite novel about the search for meaning, belonging and self, and the inergenerational ripple effects of joining a cult. It also boasted the best first sentence of any book I read this year. Mette Jakobsen gave us The Wingmaker, a subtle and gorgeous story of a woman who goes to a delapidated hotel to repair a broken statue, not to mention her life. I'll humbly join Helen Garner in raving about Diana Reid's brilliantly assured debut, Love & Virtue, a complex and nuanced take on consent and agency in the rarified world of Sydney university colleges. Lucy Neave's Believe In Me was one of the best novels about motherhood I've ever read. Emotionally and morally complex, it asked the fundamental question of whether we can truly know the people we love before we came into their lives. And last but definitely not least, Claire Thomas hit it out of the park with The Performance, a state of the nation novel deftly woven around a production of Beckett's Happy Days.

Australian short stories had a real banner year in 2021, with some very quirky, borderline experimental collections standing out for me. Top of the pile was Chloe Wilson's Hold Your Fire and Patrick Lenton's Sexy Tales of Paleontology, but I also loved the more conventional Born Into This by Adam Thompson and Dark As Last Night by the consistently brilliant Tony Birch.

Venturing out of my wanky comfort zone, I thoroughly enjoyed some great crime/thriller novels. The ever-dependable JP Pomare had me swearing off Air BNB-type arragements for life with his thoroughly creepy The Last Guests. RWR McDonald returned with his feisty kid detective and her hilarious gay uncles in Nancy Business, another top notch murder mystery in what is shaping up to be quite the irresistable series. This one even featured a ferret named after yours truly (to me, the main characterm if only for a page). Lyn Yeowart's debut novel, The Silent Listener, was a cunning subversion of some common genre tropes, and had me absolutely hooked throughout. International glory has rightly found Peter Papathanasiou for outback mystery with a social conscience, The Stoning. And Matt Nable absolutely nailed the historical shit-town noir thriller (sorry, Darwin) with the bloody excellent Still.

To my great surprise, 2021 was the year I was forced to change my snobbish aversion to self-published novels. Usually I run like the plague but it turned out three of my favourite Australian novels weren't picked up by publishers. Blazing its own trail of experimental weirdo mindfuckery was Michael Winkler's spectacular work of "exploded non-fiction", Grimmish. As I said a while back, I totally get why it didn't find a publisher but absolutley cannot believe a publisher wasn't willing to take a punt on what turned out to the most daring book of 2021. Winkler, of course, had the last laugh, with glowing reviews everywhere and word of mouth driving it to near-mainstream status. Another self-published gem was The Hands of Pianists by Stephen Downes, a thoroughly odd Sebald-meets-Poe tale of musicians and the pianos that murdered them. Finally, Daylight by Ben Tarwin was an elusive, elliptical story of elderly brothers falling out over death of one’s son. Pocked by memories of World War 2, it floated between prose and poetry in what can only be described as a narrative dreamscape.

There was one other Australian literary highlight, but this one wasn't a book. Beyond The Zero is a relatively new podcast that appeared pretty much out of nowhere back in July and has since built an almost cultlike following of obsessed book fiends, myself included. I don't know how he does it, but Ben gets the most interesting array of authors , critics and writing types on to the show to chat about their work, their favourite books and all manner of literary things. What's more, he's built an incredible, inclusive literary community that is very active on Twitter (even if they got the winner of the World Cup of Books totally wrong). It's probably my number one place for book recommendations and I strongly recommend you check it out on your favourite streaming service or podcast app.


on Saturday, December 25, 2021
Not quite the blogging year I'd hoped for. Not the anything year any of us had hoped for. Still, here we all are, limping to the end, gazing into the distance with hope only to see the oncoming train of Omicron. If there was any consolation this year, it was that it was an absolute ripper for literature. So many great books were published and, locked in as we were, we had the opportunity to read them... that is, when we weren't overcome with existential dread. I managed 190 or so. And a veritable fuckton of dread. I'm unlikely to be able to do the whole extended list thing this year because I've just moved home, am awaiting the imminent arrival of a baby and, to be honest, I'm just too munted. Still, I'll do my best. As always I start with the peripheral stuff.

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey. There's not much I can say about this literary prize vacuum that hasn't already been said. Only that it deserved every accolade it has received. A modern Australian classic.
Brodeck by Philippe Claudel On the face of it a strange murder mystery fable, Brodeck is probably the greatest novel about French complicity in the Holocaust that I've ever read. Thanks to Ben from Burgers, Beers and Books with Ben for getting me to give it another go and then come onto the show to fawn over it for an hour.
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. I remember this as having been a brilliantly structured 17th century whodunnit, but I'd totally forgotten its incredible political dimensions. Yep, it's still my favourite book of its kind (sorry Umberto).
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Many years ago, when I first read it, I declared The Remains of the Day as close to the perfect English novel as has ever been written. I reckon I've read a couple of thousand books since then and my opinion hasn't changed.
Bear by Marian Engel. I would never have guessed that one of the greatest books about loneliness, existence, nature and companionship would centre around an ageing librarian who fucks a bear in a country cabin. But here we are. An absolutely clawesome classic.
The Most Precious of Cargoes by Jean-Claude Grumberg. A woodcutter's wife catches a baby thrown from a cattle train bound for hell. The child grows up, loved by her new family, while her father struggles to survive. A stunning fable, a moral reckoning, a balm for the soul.
Dangerous Men by Michael Katakis. Steinbeck in miniature, these very short stories of dustbowl America absolutely destroyed me.

One hundred and ninety books and I didn't manage to get to these. How lame.


Look, I'm gonna level with you. This was a pretty shit year for my favourite genres - punk, metal, hardcore (the real kind, not the lame 2010s variety) and indie rock. There were very few standout albums. Most of my favourites were anniversary edition rereleases of old albums (I'm looking at you greatest album of all-time, Propagandhi's Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes) and live albums. Of the new releases, for the first time ever I couldn't even scrounge a Top 20. Which made these sixteen records all the more amazing for me.
16. Crawler - IDLES. Loved Joy As An Act of Rebellion. Didn't like Ultra Mono at all. Wasn't holding out much hope for Crawler. Turned out one of the most pleasant surprises of the year; a dark, brooding, slow-burn of repressed fury.
15. Alone In a Dome - The Copyrights. Ramonescore pop-punk done right. Edgy, fun and criminally overlooked. In a year when their spiritual brethren put out a decent but samey record, only to be plagued by some pretty shitty controversy, The Copyrights really shone bright for me as the best in the game.
14. ULTRAPOP - The Armed. What is this fucking chaos? Glorious. That's what it is.
13. Kids Off the Estate - The Reytons. I was, at best, a casual fan of Arctic Monkeys. I did, however, like a bunch of those other Britpop bands at the time. Fast forward fifteen years and some smart cookie thought it would be a great idea to chuck them all in a blender and see what came out. They were right. It was genius. Derivative as all hell, but genius. What a fun record.
12. No Gods No Masters - Garbage. Who would have thought that Garbage could still be relevant in 2021? Not me. And then they come out with their best album since Version 2.0. What a weird world we live in.
11. How Flowers Grow - Scowl Ten songs. Fifteen minutes. Kick-arse, raging hardcore with touches of melody. Sublime.
10. I’m Sorry Sir, This Riff’s Been Taken - The Hard-Ons The Aussie rock equivalent of a royal marriage sees these punk legends team up with rock god Tim Rogers to someohow pull out the best record either of them has done in twnety years. It almost had no right to be this bloody good.
9. Bronx VI - The Bronx. I'm not sure when The Bronx became a full-on party band, but in a year of constant disappointment and anomie it was an absolute delight to have this ray of sonic sunshine.
8. OK Human - Weezer. It's pretty settled now that post-Pinkerton Weezer routinely bring the cringe. Still, I live in hope with each release that there will be something salvagable amongst the dross. Mostly, it's a song here and there. With OK Human they actually pulled off a really good record with only a couple of duds. Sure, it's not the first two records, but it might well be the best thing since.
7. Moral Hygeine - Ministry. University-era me is passed out in the corner of a dirty goth nightclub, dreaming of a post-apocalyptic future in which Ministry are actually good again. Wakey wakey. Get off the nangs. The future is here and it's almost as excellent as Psalm 69 or The Mind Is a Terrible Thing To Taste.
6. Milestones - Knife Hands. Easily the most exciting Australian punk album of recent times. A perfect blend of melody, aggression, awesome riffage and righteous anger.
5. 21st Century Love Songs - Wildhearts. As a long-suffering Wildhearts die-hard, I approach every new release with extreme caution. I've always been confused by their weirdly inaccessible industrial leanings, and hoped for a return to the melodic brilliance of Earth vs The Wildhearts, self-titled or Chutzpah. Here, we get a strange cocktail of all their incarnations and, who'd have thunk it, it works a treat. Ah, Ginger you unpredictable punk, never change.

4. Daggers - Jim Ward What can I say? This guy can do no wrong. Last year's Sparta record was awesome and here he comes, hot on its tail, with another solo record that's every bit as good as the bands he's played in. Thoughtful, propulsive, urgent and heartfelt, Daggers is another must listen from one of the most consistent artists in the business today.

3. Aggression Continuum - Fear Factory. I've never been a fan of that whole big metal-tinged-with-hardcore-and-industrial scene. Actually, I've never really bothered to give Fear Factory a chance. But in a year mostly devoid of standouts, I thought I'd check it out and... whoooooaaaaaah. Blown. Away. This album is a bloody monster. Everything about it is HUGE. Never has a musical implosion sounded so great.

2. Dreamers - Chaser. A perfect slice of mid-90s EpiFat punk goodness delivered with style, passion and a bucket or ten of fun. Almost an antidote to the shitness of the world right now, this was the album I most needed in 2021. Also, no song made me happier (or more nostalgic) this year than See You At the Show.

1. Now Where Were We - The Exbats
There's something I've always loved about daugher/father duo The Exbats. Every album has been a gem of retro-tinged rock, with killer hooks, goofily enjoyable themes and a palpable joy in the playing. But this album. THIS ALBUM. Holy shit, if you want to hear the most perfect garagey hymn to the late 60s classics then you have to get this album in your ears. From the moment it starts to the final fade, this is pure, unadulterated elation on wax. I cannot stop listening to it and, after one listen, I suspect neither will you.