The 100 best books of 2013by The Listener
Books & Culture editor Guy Somerset and the Listener’s team of reviewers on the year’s reading highlights.
Please note: our list of books is numbered but not ranked.
AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED, by Khaled Hosseini (Bloomsbury, $39.99). A spider’s web of a story whose threads stretch in different directions from the incident at its core: the forced separation in 1952 Afghanistan of 10-year-old Abdullah and little sister Pari. Each new chapter leaps into the life of a different character at various junctures over the next 60 years, stopping off in France, Greece and the US. With its rhythmic prose, evocative imagery and telling detail, the novel nearly rivals Hosseini’s first, The Kite Runner.
BAD MONKEY, by Carl Hiaasen (Sphere, $39.99). Fans of the world’s greatest crime-satire-ecology writer have been increasingly frustrated since 2006 because in that time he has released only one solo adult novel and it wasn’t one of his best. Bad Monkey is. The plot and prose crackle, and as always, justice is served in poetic fashion.
BEAUTIFUL RUINS, by Jess Walter (Penguin, $26). Walter has five good novels behind him but this is the one that really hit the spot with readers, its decades-spanning story of “life as a glorious catastrophe” set on its way by a love (non-)affair in 1962 Italy as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor film Cleopatra. Switching registers from romantic comedy to satire to tragedy, and switching forms – much of the book is told as perfect pastiches of bad art, be it a movie pitch or the opening chapter of a failed novel – Beautiful Ruins is like a softer-centred A Visit from the Goon Squad.
BLOOD & BEAUTY, by Sarah Dunant (Virago, $36.99). If you’ve ever wondered what got Martin Luther so agitated, Dunant’s tale of the papacy of Rodrigo Borgia will put you right in the picture. An intriguing look at the history of a time of spectacular corruption, enlivened by well-drawn characters and cleverly chosen detail.
BRIDGET JONES: MAD ABOUT THE BOY, by Helen Fielding (Jonathan Cape, $36.99). It’s cheering to see Bridget again, her youthful myopia corrected by the bifocals of age and motherhood (and widowhood), but her essential fluffy optimism intact. Throughout it all, she remains poignantly true to the motto the late, departed Darcy cooked up, which is a truth universally applicable: “Keep Buggering On.”
A DELICATE TRUTH, by John le Carré (Viking, $37). On the 50th anniversary of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he remains a brilliant novelist, conveying his customary sense of murkiness in a story of the fall-out of a rogue and horribly bungled British operation to capture an Islamist arms dealer in Gibraltar.
THE DISESTABLISHMENT OF PARADISE, by Phillip Mann (Gollancz, $37.99). Mann’s first novel in almost 20 years is the tale of humankind’s settlement and corruption of a pristine Earth-like planet called Paradise, and subsequent banishment. It is a powerful science fiction epic that is simultaneously a love story, a spiritual journey and an ecological parable.
DOCTOR SLEEP, by Stephen King (Hodder and Stoughton, $39.99). A sequel of sorts to The Shining, although you’ll miss none of the joys herein if you haven’t read that novel. Doctor Sleep is sharp, lucid and clever, with nasty things you just don’t see coming hidden behind little nooks and crannies and – in true King fashion – a few more hiding in plain sight. Small-town America has never felt so creepy.
DUST, by Hugh Howey (Century, $34.99). Clouds of nano-machines have been unleashed on the world, virtually wiping out humanity. Hundreds of years on, the few thousand survivors are living in enormous cylindrical bunkers, clueless about the outside world or the fact their bunker is one of 50. Dust is the third of Howey’s best-selling Wool trilogy and neatly avoids the problems that often drag such novels down: it is compelling, is clear and – best of all – makes a terrible sort of sense.
EYRIE, by Tim Winton (Hamish Hamilton, $55). Tom Keely is a man falling, and there’s something about it he likes. His disillusionment is entirely justified by Winton’s withering critique of Western Australia’s sudden, massive and corrupt economic prosperity, at the cost not only of the natural world and whole sections of society, but also of all notions of truth and decency. Unsentimental, dark and darkly funny, Eyrie is a novel very much of our time, from our part of the world.
THE FALL OF LIGHT, by Sarah Laing (Vintage, $37.99). The graphic novel-style illustrations don’t quite gel but otherwise there is something irresistible about Laing’s Auckland-based story of a middle-aged man breaking down. The allure is in the familiar surroundings, her protagonist being an architect – a pretty unplumbed archetype for male leads – and a plot that flows from crash to self-recreation in such an entertaining way.
THE FLAMETHROWERS, by Rachel Kushner (Harvill Secker, $37.99). This stunning second novel, set largely in the art scene of mid-1970s New York, shines a fierce light on, and from, the recent past, illuminating some of the ways we have got to where we are now. The prose is visceral and gorgeously descriptive, a fitting vehicle for the smart observations, historical analysis and dramatising of human relationships that interest Kushner, a guest at next year’s Writers Week during the New Zealand Festival in Wellington.
A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING, by Eimear McBride (Text, $30). Stylistically unconventional, this novel sat in slush piles for years, but when it was finally published it was to great acclaim, and it is the book nominated more often than any other in this year’s 100 Best list. The story is a brutal coming-of-age tale, with the relationship between the narrator and her disabled brother at its heart, rage and frustration sitting alongside tenderness and love.
THE GOLDFINCH, by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, $39.99). Following 1992’s The Secret History and 2002’s The Little Friend, this decade’s book from Tartt is a big, spectacular novel of true psychological depth, a brainy and suspenseful page-turner that demonstrates her facility with story while exploring the havoc raised by love and death, addiction and obsession, and betrayal.
THE GUTS, by Roddy Doyle (Jonathan Cape, $37.99). Doyle resurrects Jimmy Rabbitte from his 1988 first novel, The Commitments. Moving with middle-aged father-of-four Jimmy as he works through all his challenges – trying to beat bowel cancer, looking for one big musical idea that will launch his nostalgia/punk website into the stratosphere, understanding his kids – is a ride of utter delight, a heady combination of hilarity and empathy.
HARVEST, by Jim Crace (Picador, $37.99). In Crace’s Man Booker Prize finalist, his 16th-century English farm on the brink of being fenced for sheep pasturage is no mere setting – the land is the bruising medium of life itself. A prelapsarian concord exists between the residents of the novel’s nameless village and the soil, but it is a concord heading for a fall, as Harvest chronicles in seven allegorically significant days the demise of an era with the arrival of enclosures.
THE HIRED MAN, by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury, $36.99). Forna is confirmed as one of the most fearless and visionary writers of her generation. The Hired Man succeeds in being intensely emotional and moral without slipping into sentimentality or moralising. Read it for insight into family and community dynamics, for the intimate story of the Yugoslav wars – an example of how small acts of callousness add up to full-scale horror – and not least for the gorgeously written Balkan countryside.
HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA, by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton, $37). A quirkily innovative and vitriolic satire, full of sardonic humour and brilliant insight. Told in the second person and masquerading as a self-help manual, it also reflects on fiction and its role in our lives. The Reluctant Fundamentalist author exposes the hollow nature of worldly success – how commercial transactions taint love, sex, family, lifestyle, politics and society.
I’M WORKING ON A BUILDING, by Pip Adam (VUP, $30). This first novel – about structural engineer Catherine (“sure of herself, angry at everything, more qualified than anyone”) – is intelligent and thoughtful, working backwards through a series of discrete set pieces that push and play with expectations of what narrative and storytelling should be. Adam captures the odd mysterious qualities of buildings and how they work, her strange characters never underestimating “the possibility of structure”, much like her and her writing approach.
THE INTERESTINGS, by Meg Wolitzer (Chatto & Windus, $44.99). Wolitzer’s 10th and most ambitious novel saw her – like Jess Walter (see Beautiful Ruins), only more so – gaining deserved recognition. “A friend jokingly called me a 30-year overnight sensation,” she told the Listener. Moving backward and forward in time, The Interestings is the story of a group of characters born in the late 1950s who met as teenagers at an artsy summer camp (where they dubbed themselves “the Interestings”) and are starting to take stock of their lives.
JEEVES AND THE WEDDING BELLS: A HOMAGE TO PG WODEHOUSE, by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson, $37.99). “Has the bounder pulled it off?” “Somewhat to my surprise, he well and truly has.” “Hit the nail on the thingummy?” “He paints the usual canvas, sir. Pretty girls, crusty titled personages, a stately home, silly asses, crossed lovers …” “Laughs?” “Oh indeed, sir.”
JOE VICTIM, by Paul Cleave (Penguin, $38). Cleave’s high-power writing style, laced with mordant humour, is what makes his novels so good, and he remains in fine form here, reprising serial killer Joe “the Christchurch Carver” Middleton from his 2006 debut, The Cleaner.
THE KEEPER OF SECRETS, by Julie Thomas (William Morrow, $24.99). Initially self-published as an e-book, this first novel by Waikato author Thomas took off like a bottle rocket, selling over 40,000 copies and prompting a call from HarperCollins. Inspired by stories of German looting from Jews in World War II, Thomas invents the fate of a lost 18th-century violin. It is when describing the glories of music and the alchemy of its extraordinary practitioners that her writing comes alive. She also portrays the horror of life in Dachau with pinpoint accuracy and emotional conviction.
THE LAST DAYS OF THE NATIONAL COSTUME, by Anne Kennedy (Allen & Unwin, $36.99). An irresistible combination of charm and wit, due largely to its narrator, seamstress Megan Sligo, who recounts how her contented life in Auckland was reshaped during the five weeks of power outages in 1998. The wordplay is glorious, and the rich and suggestive metaphors of Megan’s job are a lovely fit with her acts of storytelling and meditations on the nature of relationships.
LIFE AFTER LIFE, by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, $36.99). Atkinson ushers her protagonist Ursula Todd through the first half of the 20th century, taking her some way down a track and then, when it goes awry, rewinding time so she can take a different one. Charming but also sustaining, magical and real, life-affirming yet gritty.
LONGBOURN, by Jo Baker (Doubleday, $37.99). In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (whose 200th anniversary was widely celebrated this year), the Bennet sisters’ humble, crowded little house, Longbourn, is a mere backdrop, but there is a lot of drama to be mined backstage, as Baker demonstrates in her delicious servant’s-eye-view retelling of the familiar story.
THE LUMINARIES, by Eleanor Catton (VUP, $35/$55). Readers around the world were swept along by the ambition, accomplishment and all-round ingenuity of this fiendishly plotted 800-page mystery novel set in the gold rush of 19th-century Hokitika. Including, of course, the judges of the Man Booker Prize, who made Catton their youngest-ever winner. Philip Gwyn Jones, who signed Catton to her UK publisher, Granta, put it best when addressing those who questioned what it all added up to: “To say it’s only a beautiful thing is like criticising the Parthenon.”
THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS, by Craig Cliff (Vintage, $37.99). A small-town department store window dresser finds he has a hit on his hands when he trains and moulds his two children into impossibly exact living mannequins to trump a rival master carver’s recreations. Things inevitably go wrong – for the dresser but never for Cliff – in a tremendous, darkly entertaining and original novel that is played out with energy and wit.
MAX GATE, by Damien Wilkins (VUP, $30). The title comes from the name of Thomas Hardy’s villa in Dorchester. Wilkins’s novel is set in the last days of Hardy’s life and during their peculiar aftermath, focusing on jostling among the fleas determined to ride on his fame. It’s an unsettling and sometimes even unpleasant novel, but its excoriation of literary craving and jealousy will linger in the memory after all trace of more genial fare has vanished.
THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, by Neil Gaiman (Headline, $36.99). Gaiman has done what he calls “the unreliable autobiography thing” before, but never at novel length. The Ocean at the End of the Lane began as a short story he wrote because he was missing his wife, singer Amanda Palmer, but “grew in very strange ways”, he told the Listener. “It’s probably the strangest novel I’ve ever written.” Which is saying something.
AN OFFICER AND A SPY, by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, $37.99). Even those familiar with the story of the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France – and few will be familiar with all the details here – will be spellbound by Harris’s page-turner, an exciting spy thriller, superbly told, but also much more.
PERFECT, by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday, $36.99). The second novel from the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is split into two threads, the first featuring a pair of private-school boys and pivoting on the summer of 1972 when two seconds were to be added to clocks to bring them in line with the movement of the Earth, the second in the present day and involving a middle-aged psychiatric patient.
THE ROSIE PROJECT, by Graeme Simsion (Text, $37). Don is clinically depressed, perhaps touched with bipolar, most definitely OCD; ready to enter the romantic pond, this very queer (but very funny) fish meets Rosie (exciting, alternative, beautiful, full of attitude), who wants him to use his skills as a geneticist to help find her father. New Zealand-born Australian Simsion’s romantic comedy could have gone horribly awry, but his deftness and blinding imagination mean it ticks, perfectly, all the right boxes.
THE SON, by Philipp Meyer (Vintage, $37.99). The story of Texas is told through three generations of one family in Meyer’s follow-up to his 2009 debut, American Rust. Virtuosity abounds in the writing, which is gorgeous and impeccably disciplined. Meyer presents the circularities and ironies of history without ever labouring the point. Some of the material is brutal and starkly told, some is tender and some is very funny. This novel is one of the best.
THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Bloomsbury, $35). Personal and national traumas are linked in Vásquez’s novel: Colombia’s narco-war history is present yet never foregrounded, acting like a gravitational force that alters the orbit of lives. Fluid and gripping, it’s all carried off by the powerful prose, binding together historical detail and psychological suspense.
TENTH OF DECEMBER, by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, $36.99). Saunders is a perverse anthropologist of syntax twisted and distorted by TV, the internet and our daily colloquial misconduct. In these wickedly dark short stories, displaying infuriating intelligence and gamesmanship, he artfully pins his satirical specimens of contemporary life like some Nabokovian butterfly collector.
TOUGH, by Amy Head (VUP, $30). Head’s historical stories set around the Victorian gold fields of the West Coast are vividly brought to life and full of imaginative flourishes of minutely observed language and incident. The stories of contemporary West Coasters alternating with the historical ones are on the whole less successful, but even here you wouldn’t want to miss her attention to detail and Carveresque compression of meaning into beautifully distilled moments.
TRANSATLANTIC, by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury, $35). McCann weaves together three plotlines: an 1845 abolitionist travels from America to evangelise in Ireland; two 1919 pilots make the first transatlantic crossing from Newfoundland to Ireland; and a 1998 US ex-senator brokers an Irish peace deal. What at first appear unconnected are held together by a gossamer web of history via minor characters in a novel packed with excellent descriptive language.
THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE, by Ayana Mathis (Hutchinson, $34.99). The story of newly married and pregnant 17-year-old Hattie Shepherd, one of the six million black Americans who made the exodus to the “New Jerusalem” of the North during the early to mid-20th century. Mathis follows the (mostly mis)fortunes of Hattie and her 11 children as they struggle and suffer over six decades. An impressive first novel that is beautifully written, emotionally powerful and – be warned – utterly heartbreaking.
TWO GIRLS IN A BOAT, by Emma Martin (VUP, $30). When Martin won the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the judges proclaimed their delight in discovering her. With her first story collection, that delight can be more widely felt. The 11 substantial, elegant stories are impressively varied in place, time and character. All are characterised by a nuanced ambiguity, whether of identity, sexuality, authority, morality or emotion. The writing is always clever, but never sharp or smarty-pants. Thoughtful, sympathetic and acutely observed, the collection is especially remarkable for its unpredictability.
UNSPEAKABLE SECRETS OF THE ARO VALLEY, by Danyl Mclauchlan (VUP, $35). The Wellington suburb is the sinister home of eccentrics, cranks and a would-be cult leader in blogger Mclauchlan’s fantastical novel, a mixture of deadpan and slapstick with impeccable comic timing.
THE VIRGIN & THE WHALE: A LOVE STORY, by Carl Nixon (Vintage, $37.99). The main title of this World War I novel refers to a story within another story, itself part of a fable Elizabeth weaves to calm her troubled child as they await news of her missing-in-action husband. A nurse who attends those who have returned from the front, Elizabeth is assigned to an amnesiac, setting in motion the novel’s subtitle. Nixon’s book is wonderfully accomplished, beautifully told and a delight to engage with.
WAKE, by Elizabeth Knox (VUP, $35). Wake not only gifts New Zealand literature with a fine horror novel, but is also Knox’s second contender for the year’s-best lists (her young adult novel Mortal Fire was one of our 50 Best Children’s Books of 2013). It lingers as more than an intricate piece of blood-spattered clockwork; it is the work of an author who knows horror is not just gross anatomy. It’s also the ghosts and ruins of our own hearts.
WE NEED NEW NAMES, by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto & Windus, $36.99). The story of a young Zimbabwean emigrating to America, where she forges her own strong identity despite guilt, grief and the shifting nature of “home”, this Man Booker Prize-shortlisted first novel is infused with a ferocious energy in its African scenes. It sheds some of its meat and richness in the US, but Darling remains a memorable character you will enjoy.
WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO, by Liam McIlvanney (Faber and Faber, $36.99). Written in Dunedin but set in Glasgow, this novel about reporter Gerry Conway adds the forthcoming independence referendum in Scotland to the intersections between crime and politics of his first outing in 2009’s All the Colours of the Town. McIlvanney’s depiction of Conway’s domestic life continues to be refreshingly well drawn, and he once again captures the (now even more pronounced) decline in newspaper journalism.
DANTE: THE DIVINE COMEDY, translated by Clive James (Picador Poetry, $39.99). Bold (Dante’s theological terza rima is replaced by secular quatrains), informed, engaged, entertaining: all readers, learned and unlearned, will enjoy this translation, a long-term labour of love on James’s part and possibly our final book from the ailing Australian.
DARK SPARRING, by Selina Tusitala Marsh (AUP, $27.99). Marsh’s second collection is everything you’d hope for (and more): finely crafted, tightly executed, entertaining, thought-provoking, original and extraordinarily refreshing. She navigates mourning without sentimentality, the vernacular without cultural cringe, and tackles some of the big questions of Pacific diaspora with wit, bravery and poetic and personal integrity.
GLASS WINGS, by Fleur Adcock (VUP, $28). One of the most consistent and consistently interesting voices in poetry, Adcock has an extraordinary ability to open abysses of complex emotions under apparently everyday scenes. She “sees the skull beneath the skin” (as TS Eliot said of John Webster). Who else would title a poem about remembering former lovers Having Sex with the Dead? Who else would begin it with the line: “How can it be reprehensible?”
THE LIFEGUARD: POEMS 2008-2013, by Ian Wedde (AUP, $27.99). The erstwhile Wellington poet’s move to Auckland has borne ample fruit for his new home’s literature in the two epic sequences bookending this collection: the title poem, which borrows from Theocritus and Ovid to explore the differences between the city’s west and east coastlines, and Shadow Stands Up, which is full of gone-in-a-flash comic incidents from everyday city life alongside anxieties about the shadow of death, the difficulty of telling shadow from substance and the ways in which shadows of formers selves persist inside us.
THE ODOUR OF SANCTITY, by Amy Brown (VUP, $35). Nothing if not ambitious in this intricately patterned epic poem, Brown ranges across centuries as she examines the claims to – and effects of – sainthood in six startlingly diverse characters, from Saint Augustine to the contemporary, and very much alive, indie rock guru Jeff Mangum. It’s uneven, occasionally quirky, but rich, thought-provoking and meriting close attention.
SELECTED POEMS 1963-2013, by Kevin Ireland (Steele Roberts, $40). “Without staying power, poetry is a delightful but ephemeral thing,” Ireland told the Listener in a profile to mark the publication of a book packed with such staying power. In the same profile, Vincent O’Sullivan spoke of Ireland getting on quietly with poems that are deftly turned, witty, socially alert, compassionate. Both as a writer and a man, he’d never had “a flicker of the prance and strut that seemed de rigueur with some of his contemporaries”. Here’s to that.
MEMOIR & BIOGRAPHY
BONKERS: MY LIFE IN LAUGHS, by Jennifer Saunders (Viking, $40). When Saunders, creator and star of Absolutely Fabulous and half of French and Saunders, set out to write her memoir, she was told publishers wanted a “mis[ery] mem”. They were flat out of luck. Saunders reports very little “mis” in her life and not a lot of “mem”. She was appalled to realise she has had a perfectly well-adjusted life. It just involves loads of amusing anecdotes and Bollinger, the two often connected.
THE COLOUR OF FOOD: A MEMOIR OF LIFE, LOVE & DINNER, by Anne Else (Awa Press e-book, $12). A disarmingly intimate memoir that fast forwards and winds back as Else savours and suffers a life of friendship, motherhood, love, loss and mealtimes. Look out, too, for Listener food columnist Lauraine Jacobs’s handsomely presented memoir-cum-cookery book Everlasting Feast: A Treasury of Recipes and Culinary Adventures (Random House, $55).
CONFESSIONS OF A SOCIOPATH: A LIFE SPENT HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT, by ME Thomas (Sidgwick & Jackson, $39.99). The author, who claims to be a diagnosed sociopath, writes under a pseudonym but is thought to be a Mormon law professor in the US. She opens her memoir observing a baby opossum drown in her swimming pool, and the story only gets chillier from there. In parts, it’s like reading a logic puzzle: if one is a sociopath – so does not feel empathy – is it possible to be a good friend, to fall in love, to maintain religious faith, to be a decent mother? And does it follow society should have no empathy for sociopaths?
A HISTORY OF SILENCE, by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, $38). Jones’s family’s trait “was silence” – but uncovering what emerges as a painful past and giving his ancestors voices and faces become the writer’s mission. He is spurred on by the emotional shake-up the Christchurch earthquakes delivered to his system, his visits to the city in their aftermath and exploring the wreckage and discovering an organising metaphor in what these seismic shocks have unearthed. Jones is a great literary artist and everywhere his fictive skills shine through.
LEVELS OF LIFE, by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, $29.99). A poised contemplation of grief in the round, following the 2008 death of Barnes’s wife. In typical Barnes fashion, he reaches the subject via a circuitous route, from an essay and short-story/essay hybrid that focus on the pioneers of ballooning and aeronautical photography, looping back to earlier phrases, figures and scenes so as to tie everything together into an indivisible whole.
THE LIFE AND ART OF LYNLEY DODD, by Finlay Macdonald (Penguin, $50). Full of published and better still preparatory artwork, as well as archive photographs, this book is a visual delight – although the less said about the costumes for the Hairy Maclary stage shows the better. Dodd is served well writing-wise, too. Best of all is the close reading of Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy – both its text and artwork, treating it as though it were a set book at university. As well it could be.
MARGARET THATCHER: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY – VOLUME ONE: NOT FOR TURNING, by Charles Moore (Allen Lane, $60). Moore may be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, but this is not the blinkered hagiography of so many authorised biographies. His is a measured, perceptive and psychologically probing book. Eventful, gripping, at times gloriously gossipy, it benefits from its author’s journalistic eye for not only political but also human detail.
MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING: A MEMOIR OF FOOD AND LONGING, by Anya von Bremzen (Doubleday, $29.99). A note of black humour pervades this book, which is just as well, because the story von Bremzen tells is a sad one. Yes, Russia does have a tradition of delicious recipes, but over the past 100 years most of the population hasn’t had the chance to use them. A richly detailed account of the bittersweet lives of three generations of the author’s family who lived through these times.
THE REASON I JUMP: ONE BOY’S VOICE FROM THE SILENCE OF AUTISM, by Naoki Higashida, with an introduction by David Mitchell (Sceptre, $34.99). Parents of autistic children such as Cloud Atlas author Mitchell (who co-translated as well as introduces) won’t be the only ones to appreciate this rare first-person insight into the mind of an autistic child; it is an invaluable insight for all of us, by turns heartening and heartrending.
SELF-PORTRAIT, by Marti Friedlander with Hugo Manson (AUP, $59.99). A vibrant, moving, unsentimental account of a life that ranges from an orphanage in post-war London to Friedlander’s career as one of our most celebrated photographers.
SHE LEFT ME THE GUN: MY MOTHER’S LIFE BEFORE ME, by Emma Brockes (Faber and Faber, $35). Another story of family silences (see Lloyd Jones’s memoir, above). In Brockes’s book, the source of the silence is revealed early on: the sexual and/or physical abuse of her South African-born mother and her siblings by their father; what is teased out over the pages that follow is the flesh on the bones of the story and the lifelong effects on the family. At the heart of it all is Brockes’s portrait of her steely, courageous and immensely entertaining mother.
AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE: NEW ZEALAND WORLD WAR ONE VETERANS TELL THEIR STORIES, selected and edited by Jane Tolerton (Penguin, $45). An early entrant in the onslaught of World War I-related books heading our way as the centenary of 1914 looms – and one that set a high benchmark thanks to Tolerton’s handling of interviews from the World War One Oral History Archive she helped establish in 1987.
CATASTROPHE: EUROPE GOES TO WAR 1914, by Max Hastings (William Collins, $39.99). Hastings’s first foray into World War I is a remarkable book that covers the grand sweep of the events of 1914 in a fast-paced, gripping narrative. It’s going to be a long five years for readers of military history but Catastrophe is one of the books that shouldn’t be missed.
COMMAND AND CONTROL, by Eric Schlosser (Allen Lane, $37). A decade in the making, Schlosser’s third venture into investigative non-fiction focuses on the 70-year history of the US nuclear weapons programme. Billed as “the Great American Novel”, it is an acutely rendered warning light. Schlosser’s focus is both broad and narrow. He selects one notable accident in 1980 at an American missile base – relayed in chilling narrative prose – to illustrate his wider point: mistakes happen.
FRIENDLY FIRE: NUCLEAR POLITICS & THE COLLAPSE OF ANZUS, 1984-1987, by Gerald Hensley (AUP, $45). Hensley was head of the Prime Minister’s Department for most of the period described; he witnessed much of what happened, and in writing this book also accessed a small library of official papers. His control of the material is masterful. It’s hard to think of another book by a government insider so elegantly written, so leavened with wit, irony and a sense of history.
NEW ZEALAND AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR 1914-1919, by Damien Fenton (Penguin, $75). Beautifully packaged, this is a visual delight reminiscent of the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness guides. Each section, usually double-paged, is packed with information, all carefully researched, cogently written and surrounded by superb illustrations with informative captions. The cheeky little fold-out maps are wonderful and the pull-outs allow you to capture the mood of the times.
ONE SUMMER: AMERICA, 1927, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, $54.99). Bryson creates a colourful, highly textured patchwork of events and personalities, heroes and villains during a summer in which America drank, partied, lived and died as if there were no tomorrow. Tomorrow, as we now know, arrived three years later with the Great Depression.
PASSCHENDAELE: THE ANATOMY OF A TRAGEDY, by Andrew Macdonald (HarperCollins, $44.99). Yes, another World War I book, but this one about a battle of which many remain ignorant. Macdonald has dug deeply and widely into the records, and interweaves his research with personal accounts that highlight the plight of the rain-soaked men attempting to survive under shell and machine-gun fire.
PATCHED: THE HISTORY OF GANGS IN NEW ZEALAND, by Jarrod Gilbert (AUP, $49.99). Gilbert’s research – pursued as assiduously in gang houses as it was in libraries and archives – has produced a book admirable for its thoroughness and fact-based tackling of rhetoric and received wisdom on the part of politicians, police and gangs themselves. Winner of the People’s Choice vote in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.
SCIENCE & NATURAL HISTORY
THE CANCER CHRONICLES: UNLOCKING MEDICINE’S DEEPEST MYSTERY, by George Johnson (Bodley Head, $37.99). When the partner of US science writer Johnson was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, he immersed himself in the disease, trying to find out what it was, where it came from and how we have dealt with it – and not – for millennia. The result is a thoroughly human, exceptionally readable distillation of what we know (plenty) and what we don’t (probably just as much).
THE EXAMINED LIFE: HOW WE LOSE AND FIND OURSELVES, by Stephen Grosz (Chatto & Windus, $32.99). Pain can be a gift. Paranoia has its uses. Closure is overrated. These are some of the gentle epiphanies to be found in this collection of patients’ stories trawled from 25 years of American-born British psychoanalyst Grosz’s practice. Grosz writes with an acute and compassionate eye, creating human frailty stories that are sad, funny, hopeful and quietly profound.
MASTERMIND: HOW TO THINK LIKE SHERLOCK HOLMES, by Maria Konnikova (Canongate, $36.99). Konnikova, a New York-based writer on psychology, mines the unending interest in Arthur Conan Doyle’s character and his sleuthing methods by explaining that, thanks to the latest neuroscience, we now know how to train everyone to think like Holmes. We can hone our observation and deduction skills, memory and imagination by challenging our brain’s learned biases. Simple.
PENGUINS: THEIR WORLD, THEIR WAYS, by Tui de Roy, Mark Jones and Julie Cornthwaite (Bateman, $79.99). A gem of a book that is both visually sumptuous and well-researched. The photographs are a delight and range from the spectacular to the whimsical. For those wanting to spread their wings, there is also Paul Scofield and Brent Stephenson’s comprehensive Birds of New Zealand: A Photographic Guide (AUP, $59.99).
PIECES OF LIGHT: THE NEW SCIENCE OF MEMORY, by Charles Fernyhough (Profile, $29.99). What are memories and how are they created? Psychologist Fernyhough does more than present the latest scientific ideas about memories; he takes us on an engaging journey through his own memories – real and constructed – by revisiting places from his childhood and youth and seeing how much of what he “remembers” is real. He combines a scientist’s eye for detail with a novelist’s skill at language and story. Science by stealth.
ART & PHOTOGRAPHY
THE CONQUEST OF EVEREST: OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE LEGENDARY FIRST ASCENT, by George Lowe and Huw Lewis-Jones (Thames & Hudson, $65). Lowe died in March, before the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Everest and before the release of this large-format book that pays ample tribute to his photographic and filmic feat in recording the ascent. Included are well-known shots, but also many more previously unseen ones from Lowe’s private archives. His Letters from Everest: A New Zealander’s Account of the Epic First Ascent (HarperCollins, $29.99) was released this year, too.
THE EVENING HOURS, by Ben Cauchi, edited by Aaron Lister, with essays by Geoffrey Batchen, Aaron Lister and Glenn Barkley (VUP, $60). Sequenced immaculately, more than 80 images spanning 2003-12 provide a comprehensive index to Cauchi’s practice. As Batchen observes, “always cast as still lifes”, the photographs “are full of foreboding, a litany of false hopes, betrayals and failed experiments, or at least of wry exposures of photography’s many frailties”.
HIS OWN STEAM: THE WORK OF BARRY BRICKELL, by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien (AUP, $65). When the Listener interviewed Brickell about this book and its accompanying exhibition, which tours until 2015, the potter showed us his own review of the book, which he had just finished on his electric typewriter: he noted the high quality production in photography, design and scholarship, but suspected many readers would need glasses for the small picture captions. Glasses at the ready, then.
LATERAL INVERSIONS: THE PRINTS OF BARRY CLEAVIN, by Melinda Johnston with TL Rodney Wilson (CUP, $55). Cleavin has incised his printmaking acumen on New Zealand art practice since the 1960s, building on the centuries-old European printmaking tradition of satire and social commentary. Here, Johnston marches us across four-and-a-half decades of his perfectly crafted explorations of wordplay, skeletal forms, figures of science and – one chewed limb short of Goya’s grimmest depictions – war.
PETER McLEAVEY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A NEW ZEALAND ART DEALER, by Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa Press, $64.99). McLeavey’s faith in local artists and championing of their work have been a vital force in the development of this country’s art. Trevelyan’s superbly written biography draws from interviews and unpublished letters between him and the artists he’s represented. The result is a compelling portrait not only of McLeavey but also of New Zealand art since the mid-1960s.
PROMOTING PROSPERITY: THE ART OF EARLY NEW ZEALAND ADVERTISING, by Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart (Craig Potton, $79.99). Consumerism has seldom looked as good as it does in this nostalgic ad-feast for the eyes. Before colour cameras, advertising was created by men and women with paintbrushes, and this sumptuous, immaculate tome records some of their most arresting work.
SHANE COTTON: THE HANGING SKY, by Justin Paton with Eliot Weinberger, Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow and Robert Leonard (Christchurch Art Gallery, $120). Accompanying a major survey exhibition of the same name, this magnificently produced book is part of an ambitious, perception-shifting project that the painter told the Listener “will broaden people’s understanding of the things I deal with; make them see the work in a more complex way”.
WEARABLEART, by World of WearableArt (Craig Potton, $79.99). This book is the size of a mini-stage and that, in combination with immaculately photographed examples of costumes, makes it the next best thing to being at a WOW show or one of the associated exhibitions (at Te Manawa, Palmerston North, until February 23, and Te Papa, Wellington, until August 17).
WE WILL WORK WITH YOU: WELLINGTON MEDIA COLLECTIVE 1978-1998, edited by Mark Derby, Jennifer Rouse and Ian Wedde (VUP, $60). This richly detailed and illustrated retrospective compilation of the WMC’s activist graphics, mainly consisting of screen-printed posters, handbills and flyers, puts one in mind of George Orwell’s statement that “all art is propaganda”, along with the aphorism from Marshall McLuhan that “art is anything you can get away with”. The collective seems to have embodied the lively and irreverent spirit of both claims.
THE BEATLES: ALL THESE YEARS – VOLUME ONE: TUNE IN, by Mark Lewisohn (Little, Brown, $75). It would be tempting to say Lewisohn doesn’t do things by halves, except this mass-market version of Tune In is edited down from a 1700-page “special edition”. Even at a mere 900 pages (and we’re only up to the end of 1962), it gives the Beatles story a depth and dimension we’ve not seen before. For photographs of what the group would become, see Harry Benson’s The Beatles on the Road 1964-1966 (Taschen, $130), which is not so much a coffee-table book as a coffee table itself.
BEDSIT DISCO QUEEN: HOW I GREW UP AND TRIED TO BE A POP STAR, by Tracey Thorn (Virago, $39.99). Those who remember the young Everything But the Girl as a painfully earnest group will be relieved to discover the good humour and wry remove with which the older, wiser Thorn looks back on the ebb and flow of her 30-year career.
BENJAMIN BRITTEN: A LIFE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, by Paul Kildea (Allen Lane, $55). In a crowded field of publications marking the November 22 centenary of Britten, this biography stands tall. Coupled with the depth of Kildea’s knowledge of the subject and his understanding of Britten’s music and the business of making music in general, the polished prose makes for compelling reading.
EXPERIENCING STRAVINSKY: A LISTENER’S COMPANION, by Robin Maconie (Scarecrow Press import, US$45). Most first-time listeners to The Rite of Spring or The Rake’s Progress feel the need for guidance before they can appreciate just how listener-friendly the music is. Maconie provides this guidance in abundance.
HOW TO HEAR CLASSICAL MUSIC, by Davinia Caddy (Awa Press, $26). Caddy told the Listener she wanted “to try to chip away at the image of classical music as something boxed in to either the past or a particular realm of grey-haired connoisseurs. And to replace it with images that are a little bit more vibrant and inspiring.” She’s done a good job, and while some of those connoisseurs might baulk, novices will find much to encourage them.
MO’ META BLUES: THE WORLD ACCORDING TO QUESTLOVE, by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman (Grand Central Publishing, $45). Thompson is the iconic afro-haired drummer and founder of the Roots, who are consistently named as the best live band in hip-hop. He is also a sensitive intellectual who spends a good part of this memoir obsessing over his record collection and back issues of Rolling Stone, while chronicling the life of a black musician in a society that has yet to redress the historical injustices of slavery.
CARELESS PEOPLE: MURDER, MAYHEM & THE INVENTION OF THE GREAT GATSBY, by Sarah Churchwell (Virago, $39.99). Churchwell brings together and in some cases unearths a wealth of background material about F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, their circle, the writing of Gatsby and the US of their day, accompanied by close readings of the themes and imagery of the novel. Some of the cues and echoes she suggests owe more to circumstantial than concrete evidence – not least the real-life murder case she threads through the book – but this is nonetheless an invaluable tool for anyone wanting to understand the greatness of Gatsby.
THE FAST DIET: THE SECRET OF INTERMITTENT FASTING – LOSE WEIGHT, STAY HEALTHY, LIVE LONGER, by Dr Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer (Short Books, $24.99). Eating normally today? Or making do with those radically reduced calories and holding out for tomorrow and resumed access to the fridge? The 5:2 lifestyle has transformed dieting for many New Zealanders and here’s why.
FORTY-ONE FALSE STARTS: ESSAYS ON ARTISTS AND WRITERS, by Janet Malcolm (Text, $40). Malcolm writes that she “probably became a journalist precisely because I didn’t want to find myself alone in the room”. Forty-One False Starts is a crowded party with a pleasingly gimlet-eyed hostess who, despite her occasional flaws, is worth spending time with.
FROM EARTH’S END: THE BEST OF NEW ZEALAND COMICS, by Adrian Kinnaird (Godwit, $59.99). A lavish survey of local comics past and present, bringing back a lost world (after World War II as many as 47 titles were coming out every month) and showcasing the one that grew, and is still growing, on its razed grounds.
THE GIFT: HOW THE CREATIVE SPIRIT TRANSFORMS THE WORLD, by Lewis Hyde (Canongate Canons, $29.99). The “wonderful book” Eleanor Catton spoke of being “very much in the thrall of” in her Man Booker Prize acceptance speech. Reissued to mark its 30th anniversary, it offers a sumptuous weave of ethnography, folk mythology, theology, political philosophy and art history, all bound together by Hyde’s poetic sensibility and feeling for the forces that truly move people.
MODERN: NEW ZEALAND HOMES FROM 1938-1977, edited by Jeremy Hansen (Godwit, $75). The maroonish shade of brown that dominates the colour palate of this book’s design will take you back to a trend of the past you probably hoped you’d seen the back of, but the 24 examples of domestic modern architecture photographed and written about by some of the best in the business shine through nonetheless.
MONEY: THE UNAUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY, by Felix Martin (Bodley Head, $39.99). You’re going to be spending enough of it in the coming weeks, you might as well find out where it comes from and how it works. And for that matter, what it is: Martin counters convention and the idea money is or has ever been the physical tokens in our hands, arguing instead for the idea of it as an idea itself – credit. “Not the metal, but trust”, as 16th-century Maltese copper (rather than the previous gold and silver) coins had stamped on them.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE, by David Finkel (Scribe, $37). This is a sad, searingly honest story about life after war service in Iraq for American servicemen of 2-16 Battalion, continuing on from the tour Finkel witnessed as an embedded reporter and wrote about in 2009’s The Good Soldiers. A stark reminder that for many soldiers the wars they witness and take part in never end.
TRAGEDY AT PIKE RIVE MINE: HOW AND WHY 29 MEN DIED, by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press, $40). Macfie, a senior writer at the Listener, does what good journalists do: gets to the heart of a complex and detailed story without losing or confusing her audience. That story being why 29 men died in a West Coast coal mine one afternoon in November three years ago thanks to faulty assumptions and woeful safety standards. Lucid, exhaustive, enraging. Read an interview with Rebecca here.
WITH BOLD NEEDLE & THREAD: ADVENTURES IN NEEDLECRAFT, by Rosemary McLeod (Godwit, $55). This is McLeod’s follow-up to her 2005 Montana New Zealand Book Awards history category winner, Thrift to Fantasy: Home Textile Crafts of the 1930s-1950s, only this time showing you how to make the things included. The new book is possibly even more beautiful to look at than its predecessor (no mean feat). An accompanying touring exhibition is at Tauranga Art Gallery until January 12.
Comments from previously published and forthcoming Listener reviews and features, and by Todd Atticus, Sally Blundell, Nick Bollinger, Mark Broatch, Martin Patrick, Rebecca Priestley, Guy Somerset, Pamela Stirling, Lara Strongman, Diana Wichtel, Dale Williams and Catherine Woulfe.
The Listener‘s 50 best children’s books of 2013.
The Listener‘s 100 best books of 2012.
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