2013: And The Winner Is...

on Tuesday, December 31, 2013
If only I had been born a hundred years ago. Maybe two hundred. Sure, I'd probably have died at birth, seen my family wiped out by plague, contracted some disease we haven't even heard of today or been trampled by an elephant while performing my daring trapeze act in an Eastern European travelling circus BUT I also might have had the incredible fortune of being there when some of the great classics were first published. Assuming I was lucky enough to get an education and wasn't just sweeping chimneys or shovelling runny shit from ditches, you probably would have found me waiting in line for the latest Dostoevsky, Hugo, Austin, Dickens or Poe. Then I'd hand-press pamphlets with my opinions and run around the streets trying to get people to read them. That's how bloggers rolled back then. Alas, it just wasn't to be. Or was it?

2013 brought me the closest I think I will ever come to experiencing first hand the release of a book that is destined to be read as a classic well after I'm around to rave about it. It was a book so profoundly moving, so perfectly constructed, so enthralling, that I was in awe from the first line. At its most basic, The Infatuations by Javier Marias is a murder mystery. A woman obsesses over a couple she sees in a diner. She doesn't speak with them but feels she has some deep connection. One day she opens the paper to learn that the man has been killed. Marias uses this relatively simple premise to crack open the world as we know it. What he has to say about human nature, about the way in which society functions, about life and literature is something you'd expect to read from one of the greats of classical literature. With The Infatuations, I think he just might have joined them.

And so, Bookworms, this brings us to the end of another year. Wishing you and yours a great 2014 with many happy hours spent glued to any number of fantastic books.

Microviews Vol. 48: In By A Frenchman's Whisker

Back in January I promised to review every book that I read this year. I thought I'd finished when I closed Rivers, a great book on which to end the challenge. Unfortunately, I couldn't resist. Two more days... surely there was time to read one more. And so I bring you this final blip on the radar, a lonely island, a single white flag flapping in the wind. What can I say? A promise is a promise.

An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris
Along with Terry Pratchett, Robert Harris has long been one of my guilty pleasures. Fatherland still stands as my favourite thriller of all time as well as the best "What If?" novel I know. Engima was also a really cool take on a very exciting moment in military history. The Roman novels aren't exactly my thing, but as works of historical fiction they tower above most others. Bottom line - this guy knows how to write his way into history. Who better, then, to write the 'definitive' fictionalisation of the Dreyfus affair? There's something of The Titanic in this sort of venture. We all know how it ends. We know many of the characters. We know many of the details. And, of course, we all know Zola's classic full page indictment on the French military and judicial systems, J'Accuse. Harris comes at the story from the perspective of one of its middle tier players, Colonel Georges Picquart. Instrumental, albeit unwittingly, in the initial frame up of Alfred Dreyfus, his subsequent promotion to head of the military intelligence unit allows him to revisit the case and discover to his horror not only that Dreyfus was innocent but that the real villain had escaped any sort of justice. All of this is nothing new, but Harris creates such an incredible atmosphere of anti-semitism, conspiracy, arse-covering and downright arrogance amongst the upper echelons of the French military that the book left me seething with incredulity that they could ever have gotten away with it. Picquart was the perfect choice to tell the tale. He was, ultimately, on the side of truth and justice but he was also part of the machine that allowed it to happen. For him to be caught up and crushed in its cogs when he tries to expose the truth demonstrates the very fickle nature of power. An Officer And A Spy is a wonderful book and while it may not exactly be high literature it is a heady lesson in the feeble nature of powerful people caught in their own traps.
4 Out Of 5 Broken Sabres

2013: Words In Numbers (A Brief Statistical Interlude)

on Monday, December 30, 2013
Strap on your pocket protectors, it's time for another expedition into a world of crap I don't understand. Yes, instead of giving proper thought to the drafting of my Book Of 2013 announcement, I have been playing with Excel trying to work out how to make it add a long list of numbers (surely there must be a button for this). Three hours on and... success!!!

So here it is, my year in mathematical form (this year with a bit more explanatory memoranda).

Total Number of Pages Read: 36,830

Longest Book: In a year of pretty heavy bricks (The Luminaries at 834, The Son at 562, The Redeemer also 562, The Invention of Hugo Cabret at 530), it was Stephen King's supposed masterpiece The Stand that absolutely clobbered the competition at a whopping 1,325 pages. Alas, it still wasn't a patch on Misery.

Shortest Book: They say size doesn't matter, and a fair few short books I read this year proved more than their weight in paper. All the wonderful Finlay Lloyd Smalls (Bruno Kramzer, NY, Anxiety Soup, Nothing Ventured and The Dark Days of Matty Lang) clocked in at 60 pages, while Colm Toibin managed to scrape in a Booker nomination in just over 100 with The Testament of Mary. Elie Weisel's Open Heart was 79 pages, The Library of Unrequited Love was 96 and The Amber Amulet only 86. But it was Matthue Roth and Rohan Daniel Eason's absolutely gorgeous kids' book My First Kafka that made those others look like Proust at a mere 32 pages. You know what they say about small packages...

Average Length of Books Read in 2013: Yes I understand the statistical fallacy of this sum, but my average book was 241 pages long. And while no single book actually came in at that number, Peter Terrin's The Guard was 242 and The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, My Name Was Judas, Donnybrook and The Giant Beard That Was Evil were all 240.

Time Spent Reading (Based on an average reading speed of 90 pages an hour): 404 hours. That's almost 17 days. And to think, I could actually have slept if I wasn't so hopelessly addicted to the written word.

And there it is, Litnerds. The cold hard facts of 2013. As I learnt in year 7, when my teacher threw me out of class and refused to teach me, you can't argue with maths.

2013: The Final Countdown

on Sunday, December 29, 2013
And so another year draws to an end. As always I leave behind a bunch of books I wish I'd read but just never had the time to yank from my shelf. One or two of them might have made this list. Apologies, then, to: Middle C by William H. Gass, Southern Cross The Dog by Bill Cheng, Wreaking by James Scudamore, Property by Rutu Modan, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and The Man With The Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi. I'd also have liked to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. Oh well. Of the 90 or so books from 2013 that I read (as opposed to the other 65), these were my favourites.

THE TOP 10 OF 2013: FROM 10 TO 2

10. First Novel by Nicholas Royle. It starts as a reasonably conventional campus novel. Momentarily famous writer spends his days teaching and shagging students while trying to come up with his second novel. When a student hands in a story that might just be his life Royle shifts gears and gives us a brilliantly meta riff on identity, creation and psychosis. A highly literary Single White Female, if you will.

9. Goat Mountain by David Vann. After his last novel, Dirt, I was a little worried that Vann had run out of steam. Goat Mountain allayed that fear. Heart stopping tension when a family hunting trip turns murderous. Once again, the landscape is the real marvel, but the young boy, his father, grandfather and family friend traipsing around with a poacher's corpse makes for beautifully uncomfortable reading.

8. The Silence and The Roar by Nihad Sirees. A frightening glimpse into the suppression, exploitation and outright destruction of creativity under a dictatorial regime. After trying to help a student who has been bashed by the police, a young author is cast into bureaucratic purgatory. Kafka's nightmare vision made real.

7. It's a tie! Red Sky In Morning by Paul Lynch and Rivers by Michael Farris Smith. Two superb debuts, two harrowing reads. Red Sky In Morning might well be Ireland's answer to Blood Meridian. Brutality and injustice prevail when a good guy is forced to take terrible action. As for Rivers, no doubt JG Ballard would have been chuffed to write a dystopia as fully realised and utterly compelling as this. Can be read as a bloody ripping adventure or something far, far deeper.

6. The Devil's Workshop by Jachym Topol. Topol turns the whole Holocaust tourism concept on its head with this short, disturbing novel. A man who single handedly reinvigorated Theresienstadt is kidnapped by Belarusian operatives hell bent on making their forgotten camp into some sort of evil Disneyland. Hilarious, shocking with plenty of food for thought.

5. Carnival by Rawi Hage. Still can't make heads or tails of this completely disorientating thrill ride of a novel but I definitely know it's one of my favourites of the year. Modern life unfurled through the prism of a taxi driver cruising around town during the city's mysterious carnival.

4. Equilateral by Ken Kalfus. This whimsical tale of an hilariously madcap scheme to dig a giant equilateral triangle in the desert then light it to communicate with Mars has kept me smiling for around eight months now. Full of rich period detail and joyous storytelling, it is a ray of light in an otherwise rather dark Top 10.

3. Pink Mist by Owen Shears. I can't think of another poem (admittedly extended, and in prose form) that has ever moved me as profoundly as this. In the tradition of last year's magnificent novel Yellow Birds, Pink Mist is a searing indictment on the sheer horror and futility of war. Absolutely magnificent.

2. Harvest by Jim Crace. I have spent the last two days incessantly swapping first and second position on my list. Crace bows out of the writing game with one of the most staggering allegories of modern society ever produced. Xenophobia, selfishness, opportunism, injustice, baseless fear and hatred. It's all there in this literary mirror. Recoil in horror. The truth is very, very ugly. And yet Harvest is so beautifully executed, such a classic piece of storytelling that there is not even a hint of bitterness to Crace's pill.

Microviews Vol. 47: The 2013 Clearinghouse Sale

on Friday, December 27, 2013
Rivers by Michael Farris Smith
I have read many literary visions of the apocalypse over the years but none has struck me as so wholly realised as the storm drenched purgatory of Michael Farris Smith's superb debut novel Rivers. From the opening lines - "It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn't rained..." - the unrelenting storms remain a constant presence. It is a disturbing, bleak vision; the southern end of the USA cut off by governmental decree, its residents told to choose between going north for safety or being left to fend for themselves against the unforgiving rage of nature. Cohen is one of those who chose to stay. He couldn't bear the thought of leaving the place he has buried his wife. He drives the wastelands in his jeep, living off the land, trading with the black marketeers, hiding from the rain, whatever it takes to survive. A chance violent encounter with a young couple leads him to a strange cult and its unhinged messiah. At first he is sucked in, helping to find supplies, taking refuge in their shelter. But the followers dream of mutiny and see him as their saviour. What follows is a Mad Max like quest to find the line and escape the rain. Success, however, does not necessarily guarantee safety because just over the other side waits the one man who knows Cohen's secret. A literary dystopia of the greatest kind. Bring your snorkel.
4.5 Out Of 5 Broken Levies

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
Ten years on, Andrew Kaufman's debut still has all the charm, humour, warmth and madcap zaniness that I remember having loved when I first stumbled across it. The tale of Tom, an ordinary guy desperately trying to get his superhero wife (The Perfectionist) to see him again after being cursed by one of her ex-boyfriends (Hypno), it is about as sweet a love story as you will ever find. Kaufman plays on everyday idiosyncrasies as the basis for his superheroes - they are all normal people over-endowed with one particular trait. This hilarious skewering of everything we love and loathe in ourselves has always been the book's greatest strength. The logical gymnastics Kaufman displays in conjuring them will blow your mind. For this, the tenth anniversary edition, he has added some appendices filled with a slew of new superheroes. Far from being some crass gimmick, they serve to expand an already wonderful universe. So whether you are happening on Tom's story for the first time or just want to meet the new guys on the block (or to own the book in lovely blue hardcover), you would be a smelly Lex Luthor not to pick this up.
5 Out of 5 Sticks of Kryptonite

The Asylum by John Harwood
There aren't many people writing good ol' fashioned gothic novels these days. I can't even remember the last time I found myself plonked in a decaying old mansion with a cast of menacing folk who may or may not be trying to kill me. And so it was with equal parts foreboding and pleasure that I settled in to John Harwood's latest novel The Asylum. From the outset Harwood heaps on the tension - a young woman wakes up in an asylum with no memory of how she got there and sure of only one thing: she is not who the doctor says she is. The story slowly unravels with all the classic gothic tropes - betrayal, murder, identity theft and, of course, psychotic medical experiments. Depending on how perceptive you are, Harwood will keep you guessing well into the story but after a while even the slowest amongst you will work out what's going on. Once you do, The Asylum becomes a bit of a cliche, not in the least bit helped by its extremely lame ending. Read it for the atmosphere, enjoy it for what it is.
3 Out of 5 Dusty Chandeliers

Red Sky In Morning by Paul Lynch
It was little surprise to learn that, in his other life, Paul Lynch is the Irish Sunday Tribune's chief film critic. His debut novel has the cinematic scope and feel of a great epic despite clocking in at less than two hundred and fifty pages. Told in dense, often difficult prose, Red Sky In Morning is an unforgiving, brutal tale of crime, retribution and the simple unfairness of life. Fans of Cormac McCarthy are sure to revel in its bleakness - John Faller is as good a villain as McCarthy's monster from Blood Meridian, The Judge. His absolute disregard for life in all its forms remains genuinely shocking throughout the novel. As for the hero, Coll Coyle, well you know how it is. A good man, forced to do something terrible, then flee his home in Ireland for the anonymity of America. There he toils, exploited by a callous expatriate to work the land like a dog for next to no pay mistakenly believing that he has left Faller behind. To borrow from a fantastic film, There Will Be Blood. A magnificent piece of storytelling.
4.5 Out Of 5 Headless Horsemen

True Actor by Jacinto Lucas Pires
Some Tarantino-esque posturing (by way of Spike Jonze) from this Portugeuse young gun. Abril, a lowly actor, finds himself cast in the title role of Being Paul Giamatti, an existential adventure that screams either Academy Award or Straight-To-Video. While preparing for this role of a lifetime he is suddenly implicated in the murder of the city's most famous prostitute. Everything begins to collapse around him - his marriage, his career, his country - and Abril must try to work out who exactly he is if he's to clear his name. A cool distraction but perhaps too smart by half.
3 Out Of 5 Reservoir Fictions

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
If ever there was a movie to be made of Strange Bodies it would have to star Marlon Brando. Not Streetcar-era heartthrob Brando. Fat, monstrous Island of Dr. Moreau Jabba the Brando. Of course I realise that would be impossible but that's kind of what this book is about, the quest for immortality. Nicholas Slopen turns up at his former girlfriend's house needing a place to crash for the night. Only problem, Nicholas Slopen has been dead for two years and this guy doesn't in the least bit resemble the one she once dated. He does, however, remember every intimate detail of their time together. By the morning he has disappeared, leaving behind a USB stick. The bulk of the book is, we are told, what was stored on it. Slopen details his engagement by a music industry big wig to authenticate some recently found Samuel Johnson letters. It seems an easy job at first, one that appeals to his vanity. But behind what he figures to be a rather complex fraud lies something far more sinister, an experiment to transfer the internal life of a person into the body of another. The physical vessel may never be immortal but the mind certainly could be. From this intriguing premise, Theroux has crafted a metaphysical thriller with all the bells and whistles. It's even got the Russian mob. I dare say Theroux would have done well to make them kidnap about fifty pages and drop them at the bottom of a river in concrete boots. That would have made for a leaner, more punchy reading experience.
3.5 Out Of 5 Shelled Marys

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Some of you may recall one of my favourite graphic novels of all time, Daytripper by Gabriel Ba. In it, the protagonist gets to live life over and over, seeing how it would have turned out had he died at different points along the way. Here, then, is the long form literary equivalent and, while Kate Atkinson's book is not as dizzyingly brilliant as Daytripper, it is still a moving marvel of narrative construction. Ursula Todd is born in 1910. First time round she is stillborn. Then she lives a few days. Then a while longer. And so on until she manages to reach a ripe old age. Chance (sometimes fortuitous, sometimes malevolent) seems to dictate the outcome. One time she will be hiding in a bomb shelter during the London Blitz, another frolicking around Berlin with her buddy Eva Braun. One time she will marry an awful brute, another a kind gentleman. Her friends and family will die or they will live. Perhaps most impressive is the way Atkinson plays with the decisive life events so the reader gets the feeling that Ursula narrowly escapes the death that claimed her last time round. And yet for all that it has to commend it, Life After Life is merely a gentle pleasure, enjoyable in a country manor kind of way (think a less compelling Atonement) but without a great deal of impact.
3.5 Out Of 5 Piles of Rubble

2013: The "Best Of" Bridesmaids

on Thursday, December 26, 2013
Another bumper year, another night spent shuffling cue cards trying to sort out what would make my Top 10. I wish I could have put these in. Then again, I also wish I could fly. To my own tropical island. With a talking lemur called Alfi. Whatever. If you haven't read these books Alfi will find you and poop in your fridge.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: Anyone who picked up Catton's debut The Rehearsal knew that she was destined for huge things. With The Luminaries she delivered both literally and figuratively - 850 pages of ingeniously constructed New Zealand Wild West storytelling and a Booker Prize to boot. After all the bitching about the prize that's been going on of late, it's nice to remind yourself that sometimes the judges hit on a truly worthy winner. Given the strength of this year's Booker field, that's really saying something.

The Son by Philip Meyer: Nestled somewhere in this hefty tome is 2013's book of the year. Unfortunately the extraordinary tale of Eli McCullough's kidnapping by a Commanche raid party and subsequent initiation into their brutal way of life is padded out by two far lesser interesting tales that run as parallel threads throughout. A salutary lesson for writers and editors alike: learn to recognise the magic.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin: The shortest book ever to be nominated for a Booker Prize, Toibin's masterful act of biblical ventriloquism must be read to be believed (pun only sort of intended). Drawing on traditional narratives, apocrypha and some very smart personal theorising, The Testament of Mary is refreshing, daring and immensely enjoyable.

Bough Down by Karen Green: She doesn't mention his name even once, but Green's meditation on the death of her husband David Foster Wallace and her attempts to come to terms with it through art is nothing short of breathtaking. Don't dare call it a misery memoir; Bough Down is life affirming art in its own right.

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran: Think what you want of Australia's enfant terrible (though not quite the enfant anymore), but he sure has a knack for finding a great story. Moreover, he is willing to risk his life to become part of it. Unsurprisingly, Murder In Mississippi reads like a classic Safran series put to the page - fast, funny, sharp and socially important. Don't let the nebbishe whimsy fool you.

The Making Of by Brecht Evens: It's not that hard to take the piss out of the literary world. Let's face it - we're all a bunch of wankers. But this extremely entertaining graphic novel managed to nail the absurdity of it all in a way I haven't seen since Martin Amis's The Information. Gorgeously drawn and hilariously spun this was not only the best graphic novel I read all year but one of the best books period.

A Few Flower Girls: Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich, The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy, Bruno Kramzer by AS Patric, Saving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy.

2013: The Shelf Of Shame

on Monday, December 23, 2013
Strap on your gumboots and wade with me into the muck. It's time to unblock this year's literary toilet.

MOST OVERRATED BOOKS OF 2013
Do you ever get the feeling that reviewers are just trolling us? These three books certainly made me think so:

All That Is - James Salter: Once upon a time this really old guy wrote a reasonably interesting book about a returned soldier's very ordinary post-war life. Everyone was so amazed that he could manoeuvre a pen in his arthritic fingers that they hailed it as a masterpiece. It wasn't. And they all lived deluded ever after.

Tenth of December - George Saunders: Is there a bigger darling of the literary set right now than George Saunders? The guy can fart in a jar and people will flock from every corner of the earth to take a whiff. Don't believe me? Read Tenth of December. A couple of great stories but, otherwise, a lot of gas.

The Ocean At the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman: Kudos to Amanda Palmer. Having killed her husband in some vampyric ritual, she has managed to convince the world that the zombie-like husk with the Eraserhead hairdo that she trots out in public from time to time is the greatly loved fantasist and comic book legend. That's really the only way I can explain this humdrum, cliched fable. As for its critical reception? Witch! Witch! Burn her at the stake!

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF 2013
We Litnerds are an excitable bunch. Promise us something new from someone we love and you'll have us selling our mums to get our hands on a copy. I hereby apologise to my mum for trading her for the following:

The Quarry - Iain Banks. When an author you once loved dies just before the release of his final book, you hope against hope that it will be a fitting swansong. The Quarry came with all kinds of 'return to form' buzz. To a certain extent it was justified. The Quarry was a return to the disappointing form that had plagued Banks since 1995's Complicity. At least I'll always have The Bridge.

TransAtlantic - Colum McCann. Having written a true modern masterpiece with Let The Great World Spin, it seems McCann tried to recreate the same magic using a similar formula (disparate narrative strings flying out in all directions before coming together to reveal a spectacular tapestry). Unfortunately, TransAtlantic never really took flight. Without the passion, anger, wonder or whimsy of his previous work, it just felt like McCann was going through the motions. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get into it.

Born Weird - Andrew Kaufman. Died disappointed.

FLAT OUT WORST BOOK OF 2013
I want to dig up Vladimir Nabokov, hand him to Amanda Palmer for reanimation, and set his flesh eating zombie on anyone who dared compare Alissa Nutting's truly awful novel Tampa to Lolita. He can start by ripping the brains out of the buzz-makers who promised us the most daring story written in years. Then he can move on to the reviewers who hailed Nutting's ability to get into the mind of Celeste, the young, female predator telling this crock of a story. Next up the bloggers, podcasters... hell, it's Nabokov. He can eat whoever the fuck he likes. How this book got serious traction absolutely astonishes me. The concept is not original - it was done before (and far better) by both Eleanor Catton and Zoe Heller. Nor is it daring or insightful. Rather, Tampa is cheap and tawdry erotic fan fiction, with plot holes so big you could fit an entire football field of teenage penises through it. Now would someone please pass me a shovel?

2013: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Saturday, December 21, 2013
And so another year is drawing to an end which, as usual, has meant I've been spending the last few days frantically cramming in as many books as possible before compiling my Top 10. Cramageddon was a flop in November, but right now it's going gangbusters. So, once again, here I am buying time with the best of everything that wasn't a book published in 2013.

DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR
Every couple of years I stumble across a new writer who so captures my reading heart that I feel compelled to robe up, spend a few weeks in the desert then come back and proselytise about them from a milk carton on every street corner I can possibly find. So listen up, converts-in-waiting. I'm here to share the word of Goncalo G. Tavares. Whether you start with the experimental whimsy of The Neighbourhood, the meta noir of Jerusalem, the cold comeuppance of Learning To Pray In The Age of Technique or the ingenious absurdity of Joseph Walser's Machine, I can almost guarantee that you'll heed the calling. Not since Jesse Ball have I found an author who so seamlessly blends serious literary depth, intellectual gymnastics and pure narrative fun.
Honourable Mentions: David Vogel and Pascal Garnier

BEST BOOKS NOT FROM 2012

Mr. Theodore Mundstock - Ladislav Fuks (1963): An old Czech Jew learns what's in store for the those being deported east so turns his apartment into a concentration camp to help acclimatise. A profoundly disturbing comic masterpiece.

Joseph Walser's Machine - Goncalo M. Tavares (2004): It was hard to choose between Tavares's four books available in English but there's something about Joseph Walser's Machine that manages to lift it ever so slightly above the rest. A cog-in-the-machine everyman rebels against his daily routine with some rather unsettling results.

Dolly City - Orly Castel-Bloom (1991): Wildly imaginative riff on the peace process told via a batshit crazy doctor trying to immunise her baby (one she stole, mind you) against every imaginable illness. Just extraordinary.

The A26 - Pascal Garnier (1999): Crime fiction doesn't get better than this masterpiece of amorality. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Bernard finds himself free from society's shackles. What follows can only be described as a rampage of depravity.

Viennese Romance - David Vogel (1937): Echoes of Hermann Ungar's brilliant novel The Maimed in this story of a young man who rents a room in a house only to be crushed by the landlady's amorous obsession.

Special Mentions: I have deliberately chosen not to include recent rereads but it would be wrong not to give mad props to Cats Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Trieste by Dasa Drndic, The Complete MAUS by Art Speigleman and Life With A Star by Jiri Weil.

PODCASTS TO CONQUER THE BOREDOM OF CROSS CITY DRIVING
Nothing new here. Still loving Michael Silverblat's KCRW Bookworm, Judge John Hodgman and BBC's A Good Read.

THE SOUNDTRACK TO MY DOWNTIME
2013 will go down as a great year in music. Sure, there were some stinkers from Avenged Sevenfold, Black Flag and Elvis Costello. There were also way too many decent-but-unremarkable comeback albums from the likes of Black Sabbath, AFI, David Bowie, Manic Street Preachers, Placebo and The Dismemberment Plan (though Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer is one of my favourite songs of the year). But other than those little hiccups, this really was a stellar year... so, stellar that I've really struggled to distill a top 10. Heck, I've even had to jettison albums I really liked by Future of the Left, Dog Party, Vampire Weekend, Old Man Markley and Franz Ferdinand. Oh well. Time to play fast and loose with the definition of the word "ten" again. Here's all 13 albums of my Top 10 of 2013:

13. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You by Neko Case: Poetic, complex and completely mesmerising. The title has already taken up my allotted words for this entry.

12. Perhaps You'll Deliver This Judgement With Greater Fear Than I Receive It by Crusades: If The Misfits were born into a world of melodic hardcore, they'd sound an awful lot like Crusades. But this isn't some lame schlock horror fest. Crusades mean serious business with their politically-charged, satanist-tinged sonic barrage.

11. The Hands That Thieve by Streetlight Manifesto: Ok, the songs are too long but there's no denying the catchy brilliance of SM's long-awaited return. Speedy ska punk joy.

10. Safety Net by Mad Choice. Blink and you'll miss this super fast skate punk punch in the face. A glorious throwback to the early days of the movement.

9. Infestissumam by Ghost: Picture, if you will, Pete Steele of Type O Negative in a sacrificial orgy with the monks from Enigma. Nine months later, my clear biological ignorance notwithstanding, this is what you'd get.

8. Adult Film by Tim Kasher: By now you know what to expect from the strange bird that is Cursive's frontman. What you probably don't expect is for it to still be this bloody good. Probably the best thing he's done since Happy Hollow.

7. Role Model by Bodyjar: Bands wanting to stage a comeback, take note. This is how it's done. Australian 90s punk legends Bodyjar stormed back with a reminder of everything that made them so great. Forty-year-old men in board shorts? Bring it on!

6. Hungry Ghost by Violent Soho. Brisbane is the new Seattle if this incredibly vibrant grunge record is anything to go by. In under an hour they manage to completely reinvigorate a genre that was ended, quite literally, with a bullet.

5. Anthems by Pure Love: I was never a great Gallows fan, but Frank Carter shows he can rock like few others with this hook laden gem. Brimming with passion and purpose, it is great song after great song after great song. As for Gallows, well, if you'll pardon the pun, he seems to have left them hanging.

4. IV by The Bronx: RAAWWWWK. The Bronx very seldom disappoint but even I wasn't expecting something this awesome. From the outset, IV grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go til long after the music has ended.

3. FIDLAR by FIDLAR: It took seeing them live for me to be sucked into the world of FIDLAR but, once I was there, there was no going back. Surfy garage punk at its most fun and urgent. And while it might not have come from the best song on the album (that goes to No Waves), was there a better chant this year than "I drink cheap beer. So what? Fuck you!"?

2. Unkind by After The Fall. The problem with writing a perfect album so early in your career is that you risk spending the rest of your days chasing your tail. Such was the plight of After The Fall and their sophomore record Fort Orange. After a disappointing EP and album ATF have not only caught up with their tail but wholeheartedly chomped it off with this perfect marriage of ferocity, heart and melody.

1. True North by Bad Religion: I had all but given up on Bad Religion. Sure, I've enjoyed the odd song here and there off their last few records but, by all indication, they had become old men going through the motions, a sad shell of the legends that gave us No Control and Suffer. Seeing them live last year only served to confirm my fears. Well, blow me over with half an hour of punk rock perfection. I should be whipped with nettles for ever doubting. True North is the sound of a band rediscovering what they first set out to do as teenagers. Almost eleven months after it was released it remains urgent, intelligent, and catchy as hell. It also remains my album of the year. Let's just not mention the godawful Christmas Songs record they recently pooped on our heads.

MOMENTARY LAPSES OF HERMITUDE: BEST LIVE SHOWS 2013
2013 was also the year I finally got out and started seeing live music again. There were quite a few great shows but three stood out.

FIDLAR at The Corner Hotel. I didn't really know the band. I only went because a friend had a spare ticket. Holy shit. It was a transformative experience. As I tried to hoist my jaw from the beer stained carpet I came to know what it must have felt like to watch Nirvana in their early Bleach days.

Good Riddance/ A Wilhelm Scream/ The Flatliners at The East Bunswick Club. To have only seen the reformed Good Riddance would have made my year. But to see two other great bands... well that was just delicious, delicious icing.

Useless ID/ The Decline at The Workers Club. It was a cold, miserable Melbourne night but you wouldn't have known it at The Worker's Club. First up, a couple of awesome sets from local supports Declaration and Up And Atom. Then Perth punk superheroes The Decline tore the room a new one. And, to top it off, Israeli pita punkers Useless ID reminded us all what we'd been missing since they last toured here seven years ago. One of the best nights out I had all year.

2013: A Short List of Lists

on Thursday, December 12, 2013
Calm down 2014. No need to show off just yet. Yes, yes. We all know you are bringing us tasty delights from E. L. Doctorow, Jesse Ball and Robert Coover but for know stop your silly cartwheels and let 2013 have its last gasp of stardom. Holy crap. I'm talking to a concept. It really must be December. Ok, before I go completely nuts here's the rundown of how it's going to play out:

Saturday December 21: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

Monday December 23: The Shelf of Shame

Thursday December 26: The Best of Bridesmaids

Sunday December 29: The Final Countdown

Tuesday December 31: Book Of The Year

Long time Bookworms will note my lack of a New Year's Aspiration scorecard this time round. Well, I only made one: To review every book I read. And God knows how but I did it. Of the many things I could say, I'll leave it at this: What the hell was I thinking???

Microviews Vol. 46: First Cab Outta Hipsterville (Brooklyn Is Burning)

on Tuesday, December 10, 2013
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
This is not a review. It's an intervention. It has come to my attention that all you vegan, tapas eating, latte licking hipsters in the hermetically sealed borough of Brooklyn think this book nails life. Newsflash. Your life, maybe... and that's why we need to talk. Granted, there's a certain charm in this tale of a slightly less neurotic Woody Allenesque schmuck stapling his penis to various popular installation pieces (if only that were literal!). And yeah, there are some shrewd observations about modern dating and romance. Hell, there's also some flashy writing on show, some cutely humorous set pieces. But Nate Piven is a total douche. His friends are douches. Their lives are boring, unless you think navel gazing (peppered with pettily jealous asides) is some high octane sport. And before you get all up in my face about how this is brilliant satire and I just don't get it... Hop on a train and get the fuck out of Brooklyn. It's killing you.
3 Out Of 5 Ironic Beards

Carnival by Rawi Hage
Rawi Hage is the best author I've never raved about. Strange, profound yet joyously readable, you can't help but love everything he does. Carnival is probably his weirdest book to date. It's just plain nuts. More so, it is a sensation. There isn't a plot, as such. It's a guy, Fly, who drives a taxi around some unidentified city during their big, month long carnival. He picks up various customers, gets glimpses into their mostly fucked up lives - crims, prostitutes, clowns, revolutionaries, you name it. You also get glimpses into Fly's life; his childhood in the circus, his strange friendships and even stranger relationships. As the carnival gets into full swing things become increasingly chaotic and disjointed. There are wonders aplenty, a murder, even moments of quiet contemplation. Whatever. Don't worry about the story. It's all about the thrill of the ride. Just brilliant.
4.5 Out of 5 Rigged Meters

Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston
Whenever I meet a nurse or nursing student I can't help but ask whether they ever dabble in a bit of manual disimpaction. Yeah, I know it's childish and disrespectful but, well, so am I. Of course I've never given much thought to the procedure itself until now when, about a third of the way through Gabriel Weston's sophomore effort, beleaguered OBGYN abortion specialist Dr. Nancy recounts her early days in the profession. Let's just say, if you are squeamish, this ain't the book for you. Weston, herself a doctor, goes into the finest detail of some pretty intimate medical procedures. The physical revulsion you may or may not feel is, however, a secondary consideration. This book is about abortion and it is likely to be troubling for people on both sides of the debate. Perhaps it is to Weston's credit that she never really picks a side - it is clear that Nancy feels abortion is a right and a necessity, but her freezing up and almost killing a patient thanks to a crisis of faith/confidence/ability (pretty much the central event of the novel) suggests a certain sympathy for the other view. Personally, I found this moral ambiguity troubling rather than brave or challenging. It's almost as if Weston was falling back on the saying from which her title might be drawn: It's dirty work but someone's got to do it. Hmmm... I don't expect some sort of proselytising from a novel dealing with this important a topic but a greater degree of moral courage wouldn't have gone astray.
2.5 Out of 5 Rubber Gloves

Dashenka or The Life of a Puppy by Karel Capek
Leaving aside Kafka who, it must be said, transcends nationality, Karel Capek is my favourite Czech writer. His masterpiece, War With The Newts, is one of the smartest, most terrifying, yet hilariously playful books ever written. Over the years I've pretty much exhausted his ouevre, so I was rather excited to find this during one of my random internet author searches. While it is by no means a major work, Dashenka is a sweet kids' book about the first few months of a puppy's life. It is divided into three parts. The first is a descriptive narrative to which anyone who has raised a puppy will relate. The frustrations, the joys. Next comes a strange little cycle of tales (sorry) that Capek concocts as bedtime stories for the dog. It's sly and whimsical - using a dog in the same way we invent stories with a child hero for our kids. Last, there's a series of photos that Capek took of the real Dashenka as she grew. Given this first came out in 1933, it's no small feat (again, sorry). Dashenka belongs with the peculiar subset of pet literature by great authors - Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, Lessing's Cat Tales, Ackerley's My Dog Tulip - that will hardly go down as their greatest works but still manage to stand on their own as charming reads for completists and animal lovers alike. Man, I've softened since I got Louie.
3.5 Out of 5 Training Pads

The Machine by James Smythe
JG Ballard and (early) Iain Banks must be looking down at James Smythe from wherever they are with some serious paternal pride. Three books in and the young Englishman has confidently taken the disturbing speculative fiction baton and run with it. Indeed, The Machine is a typically Banksian near future (or possible alternate present) mindfuck that will be welcomed by anyone who bid the great Scotsman farewell long before he died. It is, but for a few very minor characters, a two person show. Vic McAdams went off to war and was nearly killed by an IED. Brought back to England, he was plagued by PTSD and, after some violent episodes his memory was saved to a hard drive then wiped clean. Years pass and his wife becomes dissatisfied with the husk of a man lying in some hospital so she decides to bring him back home and restore what was taken away. Trawling the internet, she finds one of the memory machines on the black market (an old model of course) and sets it up in the spare room. Needless to say, the the rebooted Vic might not be all she had hoped for. The Machine is a fascinating exploration of what makes us who we are, asking some pretty big questions in classic speculative style. Are we the sum of our experiences and memories or is there something more? Would a blank canvas hardwired with our "minds" turn out just the way we did? Smythe's answers are profoundly disturbing. And yet the book doesn't quite work. It's as if he hasn't yet struck the depth of heart that made Ballard or early Banks so earth shatteringly good. Let's just say, then, that The Machine is a cerebral triumph of the most unsettling kind. Maybe that's the point.
3.5 Out Of 5 Hacked HALs

Microviews Vol. 45: Hey Maw, I Drewed Me A Pitcha

on Thursday, December 5, 2013
The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman
I couldn't think of anything new to say about it so I drew you a picture:


5 Out of 5 Charcoal Fences

Let Him Go by Larry Watson
First things first. Hillbillies creep me the fuck out. Sure, there's that thin veneer of civility, but scratch too hard against the surface and you're likely to open the gates to hell. Cue the banjo music. Let Him Go is a thoroughly disturbing return to form for Montana 1948 author Watson. George and Margaret, a frankly deluded couple, set off to convince their daughter-in-law Lorna to leave her new family and return to them. They like the girl but, more importantly, she has little Jimmy, their grandson and only living reminder of their dead boy. Pretty soon love and longing give way to desperation and Margaret (George is really only along for the ride) finds herself willing go to any length to get Jimmy back. Unfortunately, Lorna's new clan, the Weboys, will go to much greater lengths to keep him. It is a Hatfield versus McCoy tinderbox and holy stuck pigs does it explode. Margaret's grief is little match for the Weboys' fury as the novel builds to its cataclysmic end. It's a hell of a crazy ride, but one with a very serious moral message.
3.5 Out of 5 Burning Tumbleweeds

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith
For all the hooplah that's followed Zadie Smith since her debut, I've only ever been able to take her in small doses. White Teeth was pretty good in parts. I'll give her a leave pass for The Autograph Man. And, NW, well... it was kind of more White Teeth. Only On Beauty really spoke to me; it's as good a campus novel as has been written in the last two decades. Now comes The Embassy of Cambodia, essentially a short story bound quite beautifully and palmed off as an entire book. The story is touching and simple - Fatou works for a rich Pakistani family near the Cambodian embassy in Willesden. Having escaped from the Ivory Coast with dreams of freedom she is living out her days as a low wage slave, given only a few hours to experience the world outside. She uses the family's passes at the local pool, meets a missionary, falls in love. These moments of light radiate with the kind of joy that almost eclipses her otherwise heartbreaking existence. Fatou might be invisible, but Smith bestows her with dignity, warmth and humanity. An urgent, beautiful little book.
3.5 Out of 5 Shuttlecocks

The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg
When trawling through the major religious texts a couple of years ago, I was particularly struck by the similarities between the various creation myths. For all the divisiveness in their operationalisation, religious stories seemed to share an awful lot of material. In this gorgeous graphic novel, Isabel Greenberg posits a cool theory of a "first draft" of humankind, a civilisation that predates all our known history and sets the scene for everything that has followed. Drawing heavily from the Old Testament but with many a nod to the other texts, she weaves a complex, subtle, vibrant tale that is, at its essence, a profound meditation on the nature of storytelling itself. Stories pile upon one another, others shoot out from the cracks, some are crushed or silenced. But, above all, stories create, save and give meaning to our lives. It's been a long time since I've had the privilege of reading such a good old fashioned fable as this.
4.5 Out of 5 Little Bangs

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses by Lucy Corin
This is one sexy looking book! The design, the title, the concept. Kudos to McSweeneys and Lucy Corin, you won me over before I even started. So what then to make of the contents? There is no denying Corin's abundant talent. The cycle of one hundred stories that make up the greater part of this book is a dazzling display of imagination; interpretations one and all of the very concept of the apocalypse. Some are personal (end of a relationship, end of someone's individual world), others are worldwide cataclysms (you know, in the biblical sense). Some are light and flippant while others will drag you into their murky depths. Corin is clearly comfortable wherever she points her pen. A hundred stories, however, is a lot to take in and, while I enjoyed a good many of them, the cycle began to feel like a chore. It is an exhaustive exercise, but it is also exhausting. That said, perseverance pays. The final salvo is, to my mind, probably the best. Twenty five stories in which Corin explores the aftermath of the apocalypse. It's a grim picture. I suspect it's also accurate.
3.5 Out Of 5 Horsemen

Pencils for Joyce, Matzoh for Kafka: Tales from the Great Centenarians

on Saturday, November 30, 2013
Years ago I had the great privilege of meeting a legend on the antiquarian book circuit, Charles Traylen. I arrived at his house in Guildford, eager to be in the presence of the man who, as a child, had sold pencils to James Joyce. Our appointed meeting time came and went. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, after almost an hour he turned up in high spirits, apologising that he had been waylaid "at the church". Now, I'm not sure where he prayed, but it clearly had a fine supply of sacramental wine. We chatted for an hour or so, during which he regaled me with one hilarious anecdote after another. At over a hundred, he had built up a fair few. As the sun began to set, I made my way back to London, having purchased a lovely illustrated collection of Poe's stories. It was the cheapest thing on offer and I needed to make it at least seem like I was there for business.

Sadly, Traylen died a few years later. There aren't many left like him.

And that's why I have a real soft spot for Alice Herz-Sommer. I haven't actually met her. And she isn't a figure in the literary world per se. She is best known as the oldest living Holocaust survivor. That alone is amazing. But it's her stories about pre-War Europe, with the likes of Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler that are a special added treat for those of us born into a world without such creative supernovas. It's not like me to link to other blogs or articles but this really spoke to me. Read (and watch) some of her story here. It's a nice counterbalance to the general shittiness of the world.

Microviews Vol. 44: Flippin' The Good Lord Bird at the Firing Squad

on Monday, November 25, 2013
Saving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy
Ailing music critic Otto Steiner has somehow managed to avoid being outed as a Jew. While the war rages around him, he is tucked away at a sanatorium, slowly dying of tuberculosis. Through his diary (interspersed with a couple of letters to his son who has escaped to Palestine) we come to appreciate the general ennui of a great mind left to rot. His observations of everyday life are peppered with moments of vigour and vitriol - a chance to kill Hitler comes and goes, he rages against the Nazis' misappropriation of his beloved music - but it is his sense of impotence that is most palpable. As Steiner's strength fades and the sanatorium gives way to a hospital for injured soldiers, he prepares for one great act of rebellion. It will, in the scheme of things, mean nothing but in a totalitarian state, where the essence of humanity is being squeezed from its people, rebellion for its own sake might be the only way to save your soul. An immensely powerful book told with economy and heart.
4 Out of 5 Requiems

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Now that he's bagged a National Book Award, James McBride must be splashing around in a veritable sea of adulation. Unfortunately, fireworks of this kind (if I may continue piling on the metaphors) tend to produce a lot of smoke that obscures the actual work from view. Such is the case with The Good Lord Bird, a sassy, fun and vibrant slice of historical Americana, but one a little lacking in real substance. Don't get me wrong, this story of a young slave boy freed and mistaken for a girl by batshit crazy abolitionist Old John Brown is a great read. McBride absolutely nails his narrator's peculiar patter. He also manages some glorious set pieces, particularly the disastrous fight scenes. You really gotta feel for poor John Brown, starry eyed at the prospect of success, being left out to dry by those who promise to help. At its deepest, The Good Lord Bird is a fascinating portrait of the divisions that marked American society as the abolition movement got going. But for the most part it's just a rollicking adventure full of booze and guns and trains. Again, not a bad thing at all, but not exactly the Great American Novel.
3.5 Out Of 5 Broken Chains

The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees
Ten years after Nihad Sirees penned The Silence and the Roar this novel of corruption, claustrophobia and oppression remains an amazingly urgent portrait of life in Syria. Fathi Chin, a literary young gun, is arrested one day after trying to stop the police beating up a student. Down the rabbit hole he goes - sucked into a grinding bureaucracy set up to silence dissent and turn its brightest stars into pamphleteers for the dictator. Chin's will is assailed from all sides: professionally, personally, sexually, but it is not until one of the leading generals draws his mother into the maelstrom that things become unbearable. It is very easy to call The Silence and the Roar Kafkaesque but these aren't hidden machinations crushing the young author. The state bears its fangs for all to see, with neither thought nor care about being exposed. All the more then is the horror. A minor masterpiece.
4.5 Out Of 5 Poisoned Pens

The Dance of Genghis Cohn by Romain Gary
Buckle up, Holocaust purists, you ain't gonna like this! Moishe Cohn was a small time clown on the Yiddish burlesque circuit. Murdered at Auschwitz, his last and most glorious prank happened at the moment of death - he turned around and bared his arse at the firing squad. Twenty five years later he is still up to his old tricks, albeit only in spectral form, possessing and messing with the mind of the man who killed him. Detective Schatz, formerly SS officer Schatz, is now a high ranking policeman in a small German town where he is enmeshed in an investigation into a series of murders. The victims, all men, are found naked with smiles of absolute ecstasy plastered across their faces. As community pressure to find the killer mounts, Schatz gradually loses his grip, much to the enjoyment of his poltergeist. Gary mines this rather wacky setup to hilarious comic effect, but in doing so manages to tackle some very big issues - complicity, reconciliation, retribution and the absurdity of de-Nazification. It is as disturbing as it is funny; sometimes Gary misfires, sometimes he is weighed down by very 1960s concerns (it was written in 1967). But for the most part The Dance of Genghis Cohn explores Holocaust taboos with insight and mad style. While the French literati now throw prizes at anyone who so much as mentions the H word quite irrespective of whether their books are any good (I'm lookin' at you Haenel, Littell and Binet), this long out-of-print classic is the only one that really matters.
4 Out of 5 Mooning Poltergeists

Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal
From what I gather, Lore Segal is something of an American national treasure. By no means prolific, her output is anxiously anticipated and well-recieved. Now, at 85, she brings us her treatise on old age, a tender, funny novel about an Alzheimer's epidemic in post-9/11 New York. There's no great narrative thread to be found here, just a bunch of old folk suddenly losing the plot and driving their family and medical carers around the bend. There's some tangential stuff about an investigation into it all being some terrorist attack but that is by the by. Segal paints her characters with a gentle bittersweetness that will have you warming to them in a way that makes you second guess your mirth. Given that most of her characters are Jewish (of the Catskills variety), the guilt factor is a brilliant joke in itself. So too are some of Segal's stabs at the world of writing, where the immediacy of the internet has allowed for a deluge of material to drown prospective publishers. The back cover boasts some glowing puffs from some of America's literary greats. I must be missing something. Half A Kingdom is a charming distraction, sure, but that's about it.
3 Out Of 5 Blue Rinses

Premature Congratulations: What's With All The "Best Of" Lists?

Knock knock...

Hello?

Anyone in book world listening?

Here we are at the tail end of November and there's a sudden influx of Best Of 2013 lists. The Guardian just did their annual survey of authors. Goodreads has its poll running. Both Barnes and Noble and Amazon have already started flogging their picks in anticipation of the Christmas shopping rush. Even semi-respectable rags like Huffington Post and Publishers Weekly have blown their literary loads (and seriously, PW, Mohsin Hamid??? Did you even read that thing?).

HAVE YOU ALL GONE MAD?

There are still five weeks left. That's five weeks of reading all those books released this year that you have not yet had the chance to read. Best Of lists are for December. The last week of December, to be precise. Nobody wants to see your Best Of lists before that.

Grumble grumble.

National Book Award 2013: The Bird and the McBridesmaids

on Thursday, November 21, 2013
At last I got one right!!!

Just as I predicted a few days ago, James McBride's The Good Lord Bird has taken home this year's National Book Award for fiction. Sure, I hadn't actually read it when I made the prediction but it was on top of my pile. And, true to this weird practical clairvoyance I seem to have when it comes to these things, I was on the last chapter of the book when the announcement was made. That means McBride joins Jose Saramago, J. M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, Peter Carey, and Kiran Desai as recipients of major awards while I happened to be reading their work. Seriously. It's crazy Twilight Zone stuff. Next year I think I'll put my 'skill' to good use and try to engineer outcomes. If it actually works, stuff it, I'm starting a religion.

But I digress... Can't say I'm upset by the win. McBride's book is a lot of fun and tackles some pretty big issues. That said, I'm not sure it's Great American Novel stuff (full review coming soon!), but it certainly offers a unique (and slightly wacky) window on a very interesting period in American history. It is also quintessentially 'Murrrcan in its substance and style. So, all in all a good, safe pick by the National Book Foundation. And a bloody ripper pick by me!

The World Is A Lessing Place

on Monday, November 18, 2013
What terribly sad news to wake up to this morning; Doris Lessing, my absolutely favourite Nobel laureate of recent years, passed away overnight aged 94. Sure, it was a fair innings, but she was a literary treasure, someone whose age almost proved her immortality. I could go on for hours about her brilliance but I think it can all be summed up in a single video. What fantastically cynical wit she showed when told of her big gong:



Farewell you great human being. Thanks for The Good Terrorist. And The Fifth Child. And The Golden Notebook. And Memoirs of a Survivor. And the Canopus In Argus: Archives cycle. And The Sweetest Dream. And The Children of Violence series. And... And... And...

The National Bonk Awards (By Which I Mean The National Book Award and the Bad Sex in Fiction Award)

on Friday, November 15, 2013
Thought you'd escaped my fetish for book awards? Think again.

It's National Book Award week and, like the Booker, this year boasts a pretty impressive shortlist. In case you haven't seen it (and let's face it, although Americans think there are only two book awards - this and the Pulitzer - those of us in the Yankee diaspora tend to be a little more blase about it all) the books battling it out for hometown glory are:

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Hard to pick a winner here, not that my predictions ever count for anything (right, Jim Crace?). A number of factors seem to bode well for George Saunders. Not only is he a long time darling of the American literati but this particular book got crazy buzz when it was released. Plus, with Alice Munro taking out the Nobel, this might just be the year of the short story. Personally I wasn't all that fussed with Tenth of December. Sure, it had a couple of great stories, but I could take or leave the rest. The other big buzz magnet this year was Kushner who had everyone from the latte-sipping West Villagers to the brisket-munching Brooklynites (apparently nobody above Union Square gave a shit) heralding the arrival of a new saviour. It's been on my shelf for ages and, I suppose, if it wins I'll get around to reading it. But for now it remains amongst the books I won't be reading this year. Lahiri gets a second bite at the apple but I suspect that come Wednesday she'll still be hungry. Reviews for Pynchon have been kinda patchy but I'm thinking they might give him the prize just to see if he turns up or if, as I suspect, Bleeding Edge was one of the manuscripts found in JD Salinger's safe. Which leaves my personal pick - The Good Lord Bird. The story of abolitionist John Brown told through the eyes (and stylised patio) of a cross dressing slave, it has WINNER written all over it. Also, as it happens, it's the next book on my pile to read and I've had some form in the past reading the book that won a major award at the time that award was announced.

This is also the time of the most enjoyable literary award on the calendar - The Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Run by my favourite book rag, The Literary Review, it is bestowed on the most off-purple prose in a new novel (erotica is excluded from contention so EL James has never got a look in). This year's shortlist is:

My Education by Susan Choi
The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood
House of Earth by Woody Guthrie
Motherland by William Nicholson
The Victoria System by Eric Reinhardt
The World Was All Before Them by Matthew Reynolds
The City of Devi by Manil Suri
Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

Special props to Suri for "As he presses forth, he pulls me to him, so that my body bends against his in the same arc, like in the yoga asanas we once practiced. I feel his penis climb up my thigh", but surely the frontrunner has to be Woodie Guthrie's godawful sex scenes in an otherwise pretty decent book. Those of you with photographic memories might recall my review: "Think a less accomplished Steinbeck or Sinclair, with the added bonus of long descriptions of the protagonist's penis and you'll have some idea of what you're in for." Don't believe me? Here's a small... um... taste: "So magnified and so keen were her feelings that her inner nerves could even feel the bumps, the ridges, the pimples, the few stray hairs along the shaft of his male rod." It's gold, Jerry. GOLD!!!

Follow the hilarity on Twitter at #badsex

Books I Won't Be Reading

on Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Now that the initial panic of Cramageddon has subsided, I've done a bit of literary triage to lighten the load.

I've pretty much stuck to two rules:

1) No blockbusters. They'll be getting enough coverage come December without my input.

2) No books over 350 pages. In fact, if you decide to drop a brick in November (or have dropped a brick that I haven't yet read by November) I say a pox on you and your verbosity.

So, with my derision deflectors set to full power, here's a few of the books I've decided not to read in 2013:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Sure, I was excited as the rest of you when I heard this was coming out. And yes, I loved The Secret History. Then I remembered The Little Friend and thought, fuck it, I'm not committing myself to 800-odd pages when you've only got a 50% strike rate.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read Half Of A Yellow Sun. Can't be stuffed reading the other half.

The Kills by Richard House. If only it had made the Booker shortlist I wouldn't have had a choice. Indeed, I would have welcomed its company on the long haul flight back from Detroit, to give a certain symmetry to my flight across with The Luminaries. Alas, now that I do, I think I'll put it aside for a summer beach read. Then again, I don't really like the beach. Or summer.

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates. What was this? Book number 3 for her in 2013? I can't even write shopping lists that prolifically.

Eyrie by Tim Winton. Breath was great. I can take or leave pretty much everything else of his. I imagine Eyrie will have surfing in it. Sorry if I just spoiled it for you.

The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker. I actually really want to read this. It has a certain air of charm and wonder. But right now I've got golems coming out every orifice and, when the mud hardens, it's gonna hurt. Pass.

Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. It's the first book by him that I'm going to skip. My brain just can't handle the impenetrable prose or the theoretical density. And it's about flowers. Those bastards give me hayfever.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. This minute's Great American Novel. Expect to see it atop many lists. Just not mine.

Triage done, let's see how I go with the rest.

First World Reading Problems Vol. 3: Cramageddon

on Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Cramageddon(n): The last ditch effort to read as many books as possible before the end of the year. Usually undertaken with the intention of bumping up one's end of year tally (it is a competition, after all) or ensuring the infallibility of one's "Best Of" lists.

Aaaaaaaargh! 2014 is almost upon us and this, dear Bookworms, is my "To Read" shelf:



Yep, despite a fifty percent hit rate on new releases (sixty six of the one hundred and thirty five books I've read this year), I still have a long way to go. Somehow, I don't think I'm going to get through all of them.

How then to decide? Are there any that I'm really dying to read? Or that I absolutely must read if I don't want to seem foolish when I compile my "Best Of" list? I know books like The Goldfinch, The Flamethrowers and Bleeding Edge will be topping many other people's lists. But how can I pass up newies from former favourites like William H. Gass, Paul Auster or my old guilty pleasure, Robert Harris? And what about the buzz around The Golem and The Jinni, The Madonna On The Moon and The Man With the Compound Eyes? So many great books. So little time.

Ok, November. It's you, me and this pile. On your marks. Get set. CRAMAGEDDON!

Amazon's Day One: New Dawn or Old Hat?

on Saturday, November 2, 2013
Is there a new battlefield in the war of words?

A couple of days ago Team Amazon announced that they were launching a new offensi... um... initiative called Day One which, despite its name, will be a weekly e-publication dedicated to short fiction and poetry. It is, according to Amazon's spin doctors, an attempt to bring the old raison d'ĂȘtre of the literary magazine (exposing new talent to potential readers) to the digital age. Each week, sucke... um... subscribers will be sent a story and poem (with a little introductory blab from the 'editor' and a specially commissioned cover) on their Kindle or Kindle Reading App. So as not to be overwhelmed (subscribers, it appears, are remarkably fickle) there will only be one story and one poem per issue, thus saving readers from such overbearing things as variety, depth, commentary, criticism and (arguably) value.

All jokes aside, the wilfully blind optimist in me thinks it could indeed be a great launchpad for future stars. Let's face it. In an ever expanding field, it is hard to know who you ought to be checking out. Even buzz has become white noise. If this serves to direct you to just one new author you come to love, it will have been worth the subscription price ($19.99 per year).

My inner cynic, however, has caught a whiff of crass marketeering - given Amazon has moved into the world of publishing, not to mention shut out some publishers following the big court case, it will be interesting to see just who is featured in Day One. Will this just be a way to either push their own writers or charge publishers to have new discoveries 'featured' in the mag? Credit where it is due, though. They are actually making people pay to read what essentially amounts to promotional material! That there is some serious chutzpah.

We won't know for a while how Day One pans out but, either way, I've already been shunted to the sidelines. The service is only available to American subscribers. Bah, humbug!

Microviews Vol. 43: Murder, Mephistopheles and Michael Jackson

on Monday, October 28, 2013
Murder in Mississippi by John Safran
Spare a thought for the unfortunate kebab at the pointy end of a John Safran TV skewering. Life in the wake of having your idiocy/bigotry/ineptitude unveiled like that must be quite the burden. However, for white supremacist nutjob extraordinaire, Richard Barrett, TV exposure was the least of his problems. Soon after Safran's prank - which, incidentally, never actually went to air - Barrett up and got himself murdered. By a black guy. In rather homoerotic circumstances. Not quite the Confederate flag end he'd envisaged, methinks. Murder In Mississippi sees Safran return to the scene of the crime in an attempt to make sense of this very peculiar death. Believe the hype and it's a modern day In Cold Blood, but Safran is no Capote and the killer, Vincent McGee, is certainly no Dick Hickock or Perry Smith. That's a good thing, though. If this was mere homage it wouldn't be half as interesting. Safran is in a position that Capote could only have dreamed of - not only does he get to know the murderer but he also knew the victim. That Safran is an outsider - pasty, Australian, Jewish with a grating lisp that you won't be able to get out of your head as you read - allows him the kind of objectivity that even his most desperate attempts to insert himself into the narrative cannot diminish. As usual, he is an idiosyncratic joy. It's hard not to love his bumbling attempts to ingratiate himself with the various major players (several of whom have still not forgiven him for the original TV prank), the way he plays and is played in equal measure or the moments of childlike wonder and realisation that only he could bring to this kind of enterprise. And while Safran may not reach the most fulfilling of conclusions, the journey makes for a fascinating exploration of masculinity, Southern social fragility and the very strange machinations of the American criminal justice system.
4 Out of 5 Green Dot Cards

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam
Several chapters into A Beautiful Truth I was reminded of that case a couple of years ago where some woman had her face ripped off by her friend's pet chimpanzee. Then my mind wandered across to Michael Jackson and his tragic chimp, Bubbles. Point being, it's never a good idea to keep a chimp as a pet. One way or another, one of you is going to get run over by a tractor. So too here - a passable mishmash of simian sociology, political commentary and good ol' soppy sentimentality that never quite strikes the right balance - I could feel those monster wheels rolling back and forth throughout. The chapters later in the book when the hand-raised pet is given to a research facility are powerful, but it washes over quickly. I get it. We're all the same. Be nice to animals. And stay away from Michael Jackson.
2.5 Out of 5 Tick Pickers

Youth Without God by Odon Von Horvath
In what might have made a pretty decent Marx Brothers moment, Odon Von Horvath was killed in Paris when a tree under which he was hiding was hit by lightning, causing a large branch to fall directly on his head. To add ironic insult to fatal injury, he was only in France because he had fled Austria after the Anschluss to escape likely persecution (if not murder) by the Nazis. And so it is that his death has eclipsed his work, which is a shame really because Youth Without God is a marvellous little book. A fierce interrogation of minor rebellion against a totalitarian state, it centres around an unassuming schoolteacher suddenly thrown into the thick of it when he reprimands a student for a racist comment. Labeled a traitor and cast aside, things only get worse when he is implicated in a murder. Youth Without God is a sharp and unforgiving little book. There's a slight whiff of redemption towards the end but it is little consolation for the branch Horvath has already dropped on your head.
4 Out of 5 Goose Steps

The Facades by Eric Lundgren
Molly Svenson was Trude's most celebrated mezzo-soprano until one night, after a performance, she just vanished. Now her poor husband Sven is left zipping around the city in a desperate attempt to find her. The police aren't really getting anywhere, friends aren't being particularly helpful, and their dropkick son has fallen under the sway of a ridiculous cult. It's all very disjointed and unsettling, which is exactly the point. This is a book about displacement, full of absurdities and comic flourishes, where nothing is quite as it seems. Trude itself is a masterful creation - a labyrinth conceived by a mad architect who wanted the city to function as some kind of grand puzzle. It's a shame, then, that Lundgren runs out of steam towards the end. The denouement is a letdown and, while you might be sad to leave Trude, you'll have stopped caring about that neurotic whinger Sven.
3.5 Out of 5 Curious Incidents

The Implacable Order Of Things by Jose Luis Peixoto
Twins joined at the finger, giants, wise centenarians, cuckolded shephards and even the devil himself populate a remote European village in this dark fable of love and longing, revenge and philosophical ponderings. Jose Saramago rated it (and, let's not forget, the belicose Nobelian rated my favourite find of the year, Carlos M. Tavares). And that title... what a ripper! Alack, alack, I just couldn't connect. I so wanted to love The Implacable Order Of Things. The devil knows I tried. But there was a certain coldness that made my bits shrivel up any time I tried to get close. I'm sure Peixoto is capable of great things - his imagination is a garden of delights. If only, like the old Tin Man of yore, he had a heart.
3 Out Of 5 Linked Pinkies

Eleanor Catton: Booker's Latest Luminary

on Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Last night I had a weird dream in which I read (in a newspaper of all things) that Jhumpa Lahiri had won the Booker Prize. I wasn't surprised. Nor was I disappointed. Can't say I was particularly excited, though. Fast forward to a few minutes ago when I woke up in time for the announcement and sat glued to Twitter because the Booker website had pretty much crashed. While waiting for the all-knowing blue spot to show up in the feed, I had all my fingers, toes and superfluous digits crossed that it would go to either Jim Crace or Eleanor Catton.

Well, it must have been that third ear, because Eleanor Catton has bagged herself a Booker for The Luminaries and, in doing so, injected some much needed excitement into a prize that is struggling for oxygen in an overcrowded field. It is a bold move, one sure to upset the fuddy duddies (who, I think, were rooting for either Crace or Toibin - both of who wrote very worthy books) and an hilarious middle finger to the whinging minions that keep harping on about the brevity of many Booker contenders (or winners). Oh, and she's the youngest winner ever too!

Before you run to your e-readers, a thought. I understand your concern. At 800 pages, The Luminaries is darn heavy. But, let me assure you, it's worth it. I carried the thing onto a plane last month and read it in a single sitting. It's that good (and fun, and eminently readable). If you go the e-route, you will miss out on the sheer joy of watching the physical progress of reading such a mammoth work, feeling the weight shift from one side to the other as you plough through. Go out and buy the bloody thing. In hardcover if you can. It's the sort of old-fashioned tale that deserves to be experienced on paper. Plus you get the added bonus of its lovely presence on your bookshelf for years to come so that you can remember the time you climbed book Everest with a young, cool and incredibly talented New Zealand sherpa as your guide.

And that, dear Bookworms, almost wraps up literary prize silly season. For once, it's looking like I'll be able to bid it a fond farewell with two great recipients for my two favourite prizes thus far. And if Jhumpa Lahiri, Rachel Kushner or James McBride wins the National Book Award, literary nirvana will be achieved. Better go buy some incense.

Booker Prize 2013: A Wildly Unreliable Last Minute Form Guide

on Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Ok punters, get ready! They're in the home stretch. With less than twenty-four hours to go here's how the Booker race is shaping up.

Harvest by Jim Crace
What the Bookie says: 11/8
What I said: "Crace lays bare the darkest corners of human existence and shows its ultimate futility in the face of progress... a definite contender for Book of the Year." (Microviews 27)
The Final Pitch: Seven months after reading it, Harvest remains one of my favourite books of the year. It is literary fiction in the grand old fashion and yet it possesses a certain allegorical prescience that keeps it feeling thoroughly modern and relevant. In any other year, Crace could rock up to the Booker dinner with a box of popcorn, sit down with his feet on the table and munch away until his name was called. Alas, with such a strong group of contenders, he'd better polish up on his table manners and fake smile because this is anything but a sure bet.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
What the Bookie says: 11/4
What I said: "... a rich, rollicking tale that can be enjoyed by casual readers and Litsnobs alike." (Microviews 40)
The Final Pitch: A fun, exciting and deftly woven brick of a book, The Luminaries is the work of a young writer in perfect command of her craft. But then again, that was already evident in her debut, The Rehearsal (a book that, when I read it, I had hoped would get a Booker nod). I'm glad the literary establishment has caught on. Eleanor Catton is the kind of writer that ought to be championed. As for her chances, it would certainly be a shot of adrenaline into a fairly stagnant enterprise and, given the recent moves to make the Booker less parochial, not an overly unlikely one. Whatever the outcome, Catton can rest easy - she may not win it this time, but she will almost certainly win it.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
What the Bookie says: 4/1
What I said: "There's no Judas, no Last Supper, not even an Immaculate Conception to be found in Toibin's sober retelling of the Jesus story." (Microviews 27)
The Final Pitch: They copped it when McEwan won for Amsterdam. They copped it even worse when they gave it to Barnes for The Sense Of An Ending. Are they willing to weather the barrage of irate snobs lobbing hardcover copies of War and Peace from their crystal palaces by awarding one of the most prestigious literary prizes to a relative pamphlet? On merit alone, The Testament of Mary is a worthy candidate. It's a masterful act of biblical ventriloquism that, I dare say, may well have been diluted by unnecessary verbal wanderings. Like Harvest, it is one of the best things I've read this year. But it is only a hundred pages.

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
What the Bookie says: 8/1
What I said: "... a fascinating thought experiment, but had Ozecki just stuck to telling Nao's story, it would have made for a much more satisfying book." (Microviews 41)
The Final Pitch: My affection for Ozecki's book has waned in the month or so since reading it. It's not that I don't like it or wasn't moved by Nao's heartbreaking story, it's just that A Tale For The Time Being has disappeared into the ether of pretty good books I've read. Of all the books on the shortlist, this is the one I think stands the least chance. It just lacks a certain je ne sais pas. That said, it is still in there with a chance and, given my history of predicting these things, will probably win.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
What the Bookie says: 9/1
What I said: "Lesser works than this have won the Booker Prize. But then again, so have much greater." (Microviews 41)
The Final Pitch: If a single chapter could win the Booker Prize, then Bulawayo would be a dead set certainty. I have been raving about those ten or so pages to anyone unfortunate enough to be standing within hearing distance for the past five weeks. I will continue to do so long after the big dinner has come and gone. Alas, one passage does not a winner make.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
What the Bookie says: 9/1
What I said: "... a beautifully balanced endeavour, tender yet angry and, perhaps of particular note, unadorned by literary tricks or grandstanding." (Microviews 42)
The Final Pitch: I don't know why this is so low on the punters' list. Perhaps it is because The Lowland is the most conventional narrative. Or maybe it's a backlash of sorts against the opening of the prize to American authors which, let's face it, Lahiri really is. Whatever the reason, people are idiots. I actually think she's in with a very good chance. Indeed, if I was a betting man who hadn't already lost more money than he'd care to admit on this prize, I'd actually put a few quid on her. With a Pulitzer in the bag and a National Book Award in the offing, I'd even chuck a dollar or two on the trifecta.

The Bookworm's Bet: Not that I have any form whatsoever in getting these things right, but I'd have to say Jim Crace will most likely win it this year. He very much deserves to. That said, I won't be quite as embarrassed as before if I get it wrong because this is the strongest field of shortlisted novels in recent memory. There's not a single book that can't stand proudly among the list of previous winners (although a couple might stand a bit closer to Vernon God Little than Midnight's Children). I'd love to see it go to Eleanor Catton - her blend of youth, extraordinary talent, fierce intelligence and (if the reports are to be believed) all round decency are exactly what the book world needs right now. And she's made it easy for us by writing a marvellous novel in The Luminaries. Similarly, a win for Colm Toibin would be a nice cat amongst the pigeons for the snobby establishment, not to mention the dogmatic god botherers in the audience. So those are my three picks in order: Crace, Catton and Toibin. Hopefully I don't prove to be the kiss of death again. I really want one of them to win it. I'll round out the bottom half as well: Lahiri, Bulawayo and Ozecki. You know what that means, right? Rush into your local Bookie and put your house on A Tale for The Time Being.

Microviews Vol. 42: Elective Purgatory

on Monday, October 14, 2013
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
These must be pretty exciting times for Jhumpa Lahiri. Not only does she already have a Pulitzer in her pocket, but her latest novel, The Lowland, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (UK) and long listed for the National Book Award (USA). With such incessant buzz, it is hard to view her work with any semblance of objectivity. Hype only sets the reader up for disappointment, which is why The Lowland is such a great achievement; it delivers. A slow burn of a novel, sparse yet lush (I know, weird...), it is in essence the tale of a failed revolution and the lifetime of minor tragedies it creates. As children growing up in Calcutta, Subhash and Udayan are inseparable. Subhash, younger, more reserved, is in constant awe of his brother's brash, often hilarious ways. When Subhash heads to university in America, Udayan stays behind and, while pursuing studies of his own, falls in with the Naxalite movement. It is a flash in the pan rebellion, one snuffed out quickly and violently, one that costs Udayan his life. Subhash returns to his grieving family and finds Gauri, the wife his brother has left behind, pregnant and shunned by his parents. Seeing no other option but to marry her and bring her back to America, he thereby sets himself for a life of unintended longing and responsibility. Needless to say it all falls apart. Gauri ultimately runs away, leaving behind Bela, Udayan's daughter who only knows Subhash as her father. Despite the explosive acts of rebellion that underpin the narrative, it is Subhash's inner struggle, his desperate attempts to make sense of this profoundly sad destiny that lies at the heart of Lahiri's novel. It is a beautifully balanced endeavour, tender yet angry and, perhaps of particular note, unadorned by literary tricks or grandstanding. There are many more things to be said for Lahiri right now. I'll go light on the platitudes save one: wouldn't it be marvellous if Team Booker preempted the protectionist hysteria by handing the award to a writer who personifies the borderless nature of literature?
4 Out Of 5 Reluctant Fundamentalists

Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom
Castel-Bloom takes the neurotic Jewish mother schtick into psycho overdrive in this brilliant parody of the peace process. Doctor Dolly unwittingly becomes a mum when she kills a man and finds his baby in the back seat of his car. Obsessed with ensuring the child does not succumb to some random illness, she subjects him to all sorts of extreme medical procedures. No doubt it is cruel, but it comes from a place of love. And paranoia. The sheer inventiveness of Castel-Bloom's alternate Tel Aviv (Dolly City is TA's creepy negative, all in the poor doctor's head) is extraordinary and, as the metaphor becomes less oblique, it will not be hard for you to work out why this caused such a storm in Israel when it was first released. Zany, vomit-inducing but exhilarating stuff.
4.5 Out Of 5 Mutilated Doves

The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs
A super duper mega hit in its native Holland, recipient of more prizes than you can poke a stick at, and sporter of a very pretty front cover, The Angel Maker came into my life on a very shiny platter. Alas, to quote the great Robert Plant, not all that glitters is gold. Brijs draws on conventional gothic tropes and characters to explore the ethical boundaries of genetic experimentation: Dr. Hoppe, a modern recasting of old Victor Frankenstein, returns to the Belgian border town of Wolfheim after a twenty year absence with three infant boys in tow. It doesn't take long to realise that they are not merely his sons, but his clones, complete with severely cleft palates. Predictably, the experiment goes horribly wrong (in numerous, but not overly interesting ways) and from it all we are supposed to have learnt an important ethical lesson. I think it's something along the lines of: Don't leave the big scientific breakthroughs in the hands of Dr. Moreau.
2.5 Out of 5 Fat Brandos

Personae by Sergio De La Pava
Hidden somewhere within the verbal maelstrom that is Personae I am told (somewhat reliably) that there lies a good ol' whodunnit. De La Pava, this month's hottest meta-prophet with by far the best author bio in ages, has somehow spun a magic eye poster with words. Unfortunately I must have been standing at the wrong angle cos the bloody thing never came into focus for me. Was it my recent laser eye surgery? Oh wait. It's a boat.
3 Out of 5 Broken Kaleidoscopes

Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Abertine Sarrazin is very well worth reading, though I'm not sure whether it's for what she wrote or her amazing personal story. A true French literary rebel, she lived fast, fought hard and died young. Indeed, most of her best work was done while doing time for petty crime and prostitution. Astragal tells what I assume to be the semi-autobiograhical tale of a woman who escapes from jail and, while on the lam, happens upon a motley bunch of French dirtbags with hearts of various metals. At the centre of it lies Julien, the man who first finds her. They become accomplices then lovers before fate intervenes. Don't hold your breath for happily ever afters; this is gritty and exciting but also profoundly sad.
3.5 Out of 5 X-Rays

Nobel 2013: Alice Munro!!!

on Thursday, October 10, 2013
The Swedish Academy has just announced that the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to Alice Munro. I didn't pick it (big surprise there!) but I'm pretty darn happy. Another recent retiree from the world of letters - she's 82, she deserves a break - Munro is the undisputed queen of the contemporary short story. A great win and a long overdue recognition of an important literary form.

POSTSCRIPT: Turns out the this might just have been a machiavellian masterstroke by the Academy. In her immediate post-award interview, Munro joked that this may change her mind about retirement. Here's hoping! If her most recent collection, last year's Dear Life, is anything to go by she is in career-best form right now. Check out the whole interview with a clearly delighted (and delightful) Ms. Munro here.

Nobel The Unknowable

Only a couple of hours to go before the big Nobel announcement which means I'm way behind on one of my favourite annual traditions: failing to pick which obscure midlister will walk away with the gong. I've just had a little peak at the Ladbrokes top ten to gauge who the punters are backing and, once again, Haruki Murakami is sitting alone at the pointy end. I like the guy, but he'd be a pretty uninspired choice. Unless, of course, they're trying to "pop" up a prize that has long been slipping into a swamp of irrelevance.

Standing slightly below the pedestal, looking up Murakami's dress, are the likes of Peter Nadas, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon (who stopped being good in 1990 and, let's face it, most probably died in January 2010). There's also a few I suspect Ladbrokes just made up - Svetlana Aleksijevitj, Ko Un and Assia Djebar - but that ought not cut them from contention. Tomas Transtrommer was created from a game of Boggle (his name is worth about 73 points) and he won the thing two years ago.

Given the time restraints, I'll keep my other observations brief:

1) Previous darlings of the betting set seem to have fallen down the list. Adonis is out of the top ten. Ismail Kadare (one of my personal favourites) doesn't even crack the twenty.

2) Some people still think Aussies Les Murray, Gerald Murnane, David Malouf and Tim Winton are in with a chance. I'd love it if they were but, to quote another great Aussie cultural icon, tell 'em they're dreamin'!

3) Bob Dylan is way down the list. Well done punters, it only took you five years of wasted bets to realise that HE IS NOT A WRITER (though, if you must have a troubadour, Leonard Cohen is).

4) Just outside the top ten there's an interesting cluster of deserving folk: Philip Roth, Amos Oz, Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco, Peter Handke and Javier Marias vary from 16/1 to 33/1. Other than William H. Gass or Elias Khoury, I can't think of more worthy recipients.

5) Why has no-one thought to bet on David Grossman?

6) Some people will bet on anything for a laugh. Jonathan Littell? Jonathan Franzen? Anna Funder?

So who will actually win the Nobel?

Not that I have any form whatsoever in calling it, but I have a strange feeling it might actually go to an American. Given his recent retirement, Philip Roth would be a fitting choice. As would Joyce Carol Oates (though she seems to be bit of a splattergun artist - prolific but patchy). I doubt it will go to a poet. Maybe a playwright - it hasn't gone to one of those weirdos since Harold Pinter in 2005. A journalist? That'd be kind of cool. Oooh... maybe a graphic novelist? Let's not forget that these things are often more the product of compromise than anything else so rationalise, hypothesise or fantasise as much as you want, there is no obvious choice.

Put a gun to my head and make me pick one? I'm rooting for Umberto Eco. I have no idea why. I guess if I'm going to get it wrong I might as well do it in complex, cross genre style.

Microviews Vol. 41: Zen and the Art of Clusterf*&king

on Wednesday, September 25, 2013
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Scenes of horror and wonder play off one another in this greatly uneven story of Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl forced to seek refuge in America. It begins with sass and aplomb. Darling's voice is excitingly fresh; a mix of child like awe and hilarious cynicism. For as long as she remains in Africa, We Need New Names is quite simply astounding. Granted the chapters do seem a bit like set pieces - the eviction of a white family from their home by marauding Nationalist thugs, a church service with a horrifying revelation, her father's death from AIDS, the influx of new refugees - but Bulawayo's deft touch ensures that each one is utterly compelling. Unfortunately, the wheels fall off when Darling reaches Destroyedmichygen (Detroit). The set pieces continue but it is typical stranger-in-a-strange-land fare; there is hardly enough to sustain any momentum. There is one chapter that bucks the trend, however. A rolling thunder of prose perfection, it lays bare the immigrant experience across generations like never before. Seriously, it's a revelation. As for the book as a whole, well... Lesser works than this have won the Booker Prize. But then again, so have much greater.
3.5 Out Of 5 Guavas

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
A gentle serenity pervades Ozecki's latest book which, I guess, should be no surprise given that she is a Zen Buddhist priest in her spare time. You'll be pretty thankful it's there, though, because this story of a young Japanese girl navigating a pretty unforgiving world tends towards the devastating both on the personal and global levels. Once a spoiled Dotcom kid in California, Nao is back in Tokyo, contending with the worst a young girl could ever face: poverty, relentless bullying, a suicidal father and, ultimately, sexual slavery. In an effort to save her, Nao's parents send the girl to spend the summer in a monastery with her 104 year old great grandmother, Jiko. The two hit it off well enough but it is in the diary of Nao's great uncle, a kamikaze pilot after whom her father was named, that Nao finds true salvation. It is unfortunate that the beauty of these relationships has instructional undertones - it is as if Ozecki is using the book to "enlighten" the reader about Zen Buddhism. Sure, it's a pretty palatable world view, and one that a lot more people could do with accepting, but it takes away from the work as a novel. Nao's story is told through entries in a diary that has been found washed up in Canada months after the 2011 tsunami. It is juxtaposed with the story of the woman who finds it, an author called Ruth (very meta!). Cue some philosophising about the creative process and racoons. I actually found Ruth's story fairly benign and it wasn't until the end, when I realised said philosophising was a pretext for some pretty crazy existential acrobatics, that I even saw a purpose in its being there. It all makes for a fascinating thought experiment, but had Ozecki just stuck to telling Nao's story, it would have made for a much more satisfying book.
3.5 Out Of 5 Cats In A Box

Goat Mountain by David Vann
It begins and ends in cataclysm, and what lies between those two moments is so harrowing that your mouth will dry up, your chest will constrict and you will find yourself desperately reaching for your childhood comfort blankie. True to form David Vann brings us to the edge of human experience in this tale of a hunting trip gone horribly wrong. Taken on his first moose hunt by his father, grandfather and family friend, the 11-year-old narrator is hoping to kill a three point buck. It is a family rite of passage. The group arrive at Goat Mountain, a massive Californian Ranch, full of bravado and testosterone. All is set for a great trip until they spot a poacher on their land. The father looks through his rifle scope, gets the others to look too. At last it reaches the hands of the boy. He looks. He fires. All shit breaks loose. Rather than report the killing, they collect the body and continue on the hunt. Sound nuts? That's not the half of it. Debate rages, edges fray, tempers flare. Vann plumbs the depths of masculinity and family bonds in what I can only describe as a slightly more bleak Deliverance narrative. The sparse staccato prose might be off-putting for some, but holy crap, if you can stomach it Goat Mountain will blow you away. Literally.
4.5 Out Of 5 Stuck Pigs

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell
Poor Daniel Woodrell. Had Cormac McCarthy never existed the guy would probably have inhabited the same legendary space in literary culture. That's not to say he hasn't enjoyed considerable success. Winter's Bone struck a chord worldwide but let's face it, it was hardly Blood Meridian or The Road. Based on true events, The Maid's Version is another dark and complex tale told in typical Woodrell fashion. Alma thinks she knows what really happened the night forty two people, including her sister, were killed in an explosion at the local dancehall. There have always been theories - plenty of people wanted the place gone - but Alma knows better. She knows the big secret, the one about her sister and the rich banker, Arthur Glencross. The Maid's Version is the kind of book you can rip through in a single sitting but, engaging as it is at the time (there's a pretty cool Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels aspect to the resolution) it's not one that will stay with you for very long.
3 Out Of 5 Liaisons Dangereuses

La Vida Doble by Arturo Fontaine
Surprise, surprise regular Bookworms. I've found myself another one about The Dirty War. But before you roll your eyes and skip over this review, I promise you that La Vida Doble is unique. I don't think I've seen such a complex psychological study of devotion and betrayal undertaken with such poetic beauty. High praise of this order comes, however, with a disclaimer: La Vida Doble also has one of the most brutal depictions of torture and degradation you're ever likely to encounter. The first thirty pages will crush your soul (and, for the weaker of stomach, have you kneeling in front of the toilet). Fontaine employs a crafty ruse to reel us in: we are introduced to Lorena as an old woman, living out her final days in a Swedish nursing home. We are instantly invited to warm to her. But as she recounts her story of life, rebellion and, in the end, complicity under the Pinochet regime, even the most compassionate of readers will find their moral compass spinning like a ceiling fan. Sucked into the violent struggle for freedom, she partakes in a bungled robbery and is captured by the police. Incredibly, she resists the horrific torture to which she is subjected but when the threats turn to her daughter she finally succumbs. Fontaine renders this crisis of political faith with great insight and vigour, avoiding the obvious temptation to pass some sort of judgement. That, dear readers, is up to us. It is easy to condemn Lorena/Irene but what wouldn't you do to save your child?
4 Out Of 5 Sympathetic Turncoats