What New Zealand reads: part two

by Guy Somerset / 20 December, 2013
The second part of a series in which prominent Kiwis reveal their most memorable books of 2013.
This article is an online-only continuation of our magazine feature: What New Zealand reads.

Contributors were asked to choose books ideally released in New Zealand in 2013 but not compulsorily so.

Pip Adam

Writer, who this year released her first novel, I’m Working on a Building.

My best book experience of the year was reading The Grapes of Wrath while driving west on Route 66. (Thanks again, the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.) John Steinbeck’s novel is so relevant to our present economic and social situation it’s quite chilling. I feel like I’ve been saying it all year, but a stand-out for me was Carl Shuker’s novel Anti Lebanon. I’m so interested in writing the contemporary and Shuker does it with such mettle. I particularly enjoyed Damien Wilkins’ Max Gate, which is not contemporary but still messing with the “real”. I love the way the novel deals with the writing life and the machine of memory. Literary journals were also great reading this year: Sport 41Hue and Cry 7JAAM 31 and I’m looking forward to Turbine 13. I feel such respect and gratitude towards the people who continue to produce these wonderful showcases of new and often daring writing. I also read Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives this year, after finishing 2666. It’s marvellous and crushingly bittersweet – I loved it.

Quinn Berentson

Writer, documentary maker and photographer, who won the Best First Book Award for Non-Fiction at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird.

The most memorable book I read this year was one I avoided for months – The Quarry by Iain Banks. In what turned out to be the last work of a brilliant career, Banks weaves another twisted family saga set in his native Scotland. In a crumbling stone house perched on the edge of the titular quarry, a man dies of cancer while his dodgy friends gather for the first time since university and search for a mysterious, possibly scandalous, VHS tape. The fact The Quarry was published posthumously after Banks’ own death from cancer in June is the ultimate hideous irony. I have never felt such an aching sense of loss from the death of an author or artist – Banks was a Berentson family obsession and the realisation he will never write another book hit us all hard. Upon the shocking news, I superstitiously refused to even look at The Quarry and instead got hold of a republished box set of his first three science-fiction novels (written as Iain M Banks) and devoured them again. Consider PhlebasThe Player of Games and Use of Weapons are still incandescently brilliant and thrilling, and firmly established Banks’ greatest creation – the Galaxy-spanning, hedonistic, interventionist human civilisation of the far future known as the Culture. This Banks reminiscence side-tracked me from the many exciting new releases that came out in the past few months – top of the stack next to my bed are Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep and of course a little book called The Luminaries 

Carole Beu

Bookseller and reviewer.

I loved spending time in the US with Ifemelu, the bold and beautiful character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Ifemelu’s blog on racism is audacious and challenging. I delighted in the inventive structure of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, was saddened by the “lost” relationships in Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautifully written The Lowland, and was angered by the injustices inflicted on American Indians in Louise Erdrich’s stunning The Roundhouse. Having recently visited Croatia, I was deeply moved by Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man and frustrated by the English family’s failure to grasp the horrific history of the village where they have bought a “holiday house”. I am halfway through and totally gripped by Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. New Zealand novels have been brilliant this year. For the first hundred pages of The Luminaries, I had to keep referring to the cast list but I loved it and feel enormously proud of Eleanor Catton. The Last Days of the National Costume by poet Anne Kennedy totally delighted me with its gorgeous language and sophisticated wit. I enjoyed the drawings, the writing and the illumination of architecture in The Fall of Light by Sarah Laing. I was filled with admiration for the extraordinary Jean Batten in Fiona Kidman’s The Infinite Air, chuckled at the delicious wit in Stephanie Johnson’s The Writing Class and gasped in horror at the brilliant boldness of Wake by Elizabeth Knox. At present, I am dipping with delight into Selina Tusitala Marsh’s hypnotic poems in Dark Sparring and running my hands over the gloriously illustrated pages of Finlay Macdonald’s The Life and Art of Lynley Dodd.

Rod Biss

Classical music writer.

Paul Kildea’s recent biography Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century is a welcome second look at Britten’s life and music, giving a more balanced view than Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of 1992 that disappointed so many people. What was so fascinating for me was to read, as history, of events I experienced at close quarters. When I was production director of Britten’s publisher, Faber Music, all his works, from 1964 (the church operas) to the last great opera, Death in Venice in 1974, flowed across my desk on the way to being prepared for print, edited, designed and proofread. It still amazes me when I listen to these works or read about them to recall I saw them before anyone else other than Britten and his musical assistant, Rosamund Strode. Britten certainly was demanding and could be hurtfully dismissive of anyone who did not deliver what he wanted. But the Faber Music team, led by Donald Mitchell, was all a publisher could be and we never experienced any of the “waspishness” Kildea speaks of. John le Carré’s most recent novel, A Delicate Truth, is much more than a conventional spy novel. It is le Carré’s personal warning of where the world is heading – all given shocking confirmation by Edward Snowden’s revelations. It’s a book one hopes our political masters will read and take note of. I was almost put off Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette by the title and cover. But I’m glad I persevered, as it’s a great, funny and serious novel that has so much to say about the way we live now and how we say it. Along the way, one acquires an awareness of the difference between life in Los Angeles and Seattle. But for sheer enjoyment, wonder at the prose and not wanting to reach the end, the highlight of my reading this year has been Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. We all know about his long sentences and the complex relationships of his characters, but what I hadn’t expected was just how readable James is. And now I am reading (for the second time) through all four of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels and will proceed from them straight to Life After Life, when I can get my hands on it. What wonderful, entertaining dialogue she writes, so superbly fitted to her characters. I know Life After Life is tougher and altogether more serious but I trust Atkinson to hold my attention and much more.

Nick Bollinger

Broadcaster and music writer.

It’s hard to believe a biography of a one-hit wonder could be as full or funny as Ben Sandmel’s Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans. “Eccentric” hardly begins to describe the American singer, who spoke a language of his own invention and predicted that by the end of time the only musical monuments still standing would be The Star Spangled Banner and his 1961 chart-topper Mother in Law. His wife was a character, too, and found some highly creative ways of keeping K-Doe’s memory alive following his death in 2001. A tale as tragic as K-Doe’s is comic is Kevin Avery’s Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. One of the architects of rock criticism, he was an early defender of the electric Bob Dylan and was responsible for getting proto-punks the New York Dolls onto disc. Avery traces Nelson’s creative life and tries to make sense of his lonely death. In between, I’ve been rereading the rocking crime novels of Australian Peter Doyle. Get Rich Quick pivots on the real-life event in which Little Richard, in the grip of a conversion experience, casts his jewellery into the Hunter river. Doyle’s other books, similarly set in the sleaze-pits of 1950s Sydney, rock just as hard.

Sally Blundell

Journalist and art writer, who this year released the book Groundchange: The Story of Trade Aid.

A book for a young twenty-something starting art school got me hooked. What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye by BBC arts editor Will Gompertz is as personable and circuitous as the title, taking the reader not just through the various art movements, from impressionism to minimalism to “art now”, but into the cafes, galleries, streets and studios of Paris, Berlin and New York, where the pantheon of modern artists argue, complain, get inspired and get furious. Accompanied by a “map of modern art”, it is a cheerful addition to the often-abstruse art bookshelf. Gompertz rightly lauds crusty outsider Paul Cézanne as the founder of what we call modern art and Alex Danchev’s 2012 Cézanne: A Life is a refreshing and respectful look at an artist driven not by mad impulses as some would have us believe but by a careful exploration of ways of seeing the world and himself. In trying to make sense of this solitary character, Danchev turns to Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Gustave Flaubert in an altogether literary and largely propositional portrait of the man described by Pablo Picasso as “the father of us all”.

Amy Brown

Poet, who this year released the book-length poem The Odour of Sanctity.

I found Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel slyly gripping. Halfway through, I was told the novel had a shocking ending. This made me read for clues – scrutinising every date and place name for hazards. Despite this, I was, indeed, still shocked, so sought solace in Emily Perkins’ The Forrests – another novel with generous characterisation. As an only child, I am curious about sibling relationships; the novel was extremely satisfying in its expression of the minutiae of family life. I had a similar pleasure reading new(ish) poetry collections by Ashleigh Young (Magnificent Moon), Rachel O’Neill (One Human in Height), Therese Lloyd (Other Animals) and Kate Camp (Snow White’s Coffin). A less-expected joy was Janet Malcolm’s collection of essays on artists and writers, 41 False Starts. In her introduction, Helen Garner writes, “Reading [Malcolm] is an austerely enchanting kind of fun.” This could also apply to Australian poet Maria Takolander’s debut short-story collection, The Double. In its first section, the stories loosely respond to an existing piece of literature, and in the second mercilessly satirise university creative writing departments. Not a satire, but also delightfully funny, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is ending my year of reading. So far, I am most struck by the recognisability of the characters – I adore the introductory descriptions, which unfurl their strengths, weaknesses, foibles and appearances. I keep thinking, “Oh, no! I do that” or “That’s just like …” This is equivalent to the satisfaction George Eliot’s Middlemarch provides but with the added frisson of its setting, which – like the keenly depicted characters – is remote but ultimately recognisable.

Anthony Byrt

Art critic and director of research at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design in Auckland.

I’ve had one of those “what the hell does this all mean?” years (all the clichéd crises of early fatherhood; a writing/teaching residency in the US; trying to figure out what to write on said residency, etc). To find a way through all this fairly indulgent, existential blah, I’ve turned to two writers: Lewis Hyde and Rebecca Solnit. Eleanor Catton acknowledged Hyde’s book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World in her Man Booker Prize acceptance speech. For me, Hyde’s other career-defining work, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, has been even more profound: a brilliant survey of how the disruptive imagination creates culture, which, although published in 1998, seems to offer a blueprint for what radical creativity could look like in a post-9/11 world. Solnit, meanwhile, specialises in a form of writing somewhere between cultural criticism and the personal essay. I came to her work late, and in playing catch-up one book in particular has completely changed the way I think and feel about what I do: 2003’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and The Technological Wild West. In it, Solnit demonstrates how photography and rail laid the foundations for the America we know today. But its real heart is the strange story of Muybridge: a tale of a troubled technological magician who left England with one name and arrived in San Francisco with another, and went on to change forever the way we view images. It’s remarkable. So is Solnit; a writer who brings every one of Hyde’s theories into contemporary form, and shows us just how generous, sophisticated and nuanced a radical writing practice can be.

Kate Camp

Poet and presenter of Kate’s Klassics on Saturday Morning with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand National, whose Snow White’s Coffin was a poetry finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.

I have reread Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl twice in the past couple of years and been astonished at just how good it is. As Francine Prose points out in her book Anne Frank: The book, the life, the afterlife, of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, Frank’s is really the only individual human voice we know. The book has to be considered as a literary work. We know now Frank went back in the last few months in the annexe and rewrote and edited all the entries. She is nothing if not self-aware: “I have one outstanding character trait that must be obvious to anyone who’s known me for any length of time: I have a great deal of self-knowledge. In everything I do, I can watch myself as if I were a stranger.” A funny, insightful and brilliantly crafted book, a comedy of manners against a tragic background, and most of all a damn good read. This seems to be a year of books that leave me full of rage. It’s faintly ridiculous to articulate it, but Frank’s diary made me so angry at the Nazis. To pick another obvious target, The Feminine Mystique left me furious at the patriarchy. If you suffer from Mad Men-related nostalgia, Betty Friedan’s classic polemic reminds you why 1960s America was a terrible time and place to be a woman. From the university courses in Adjustment to Marriage to the patronising Freudianism that dismissed a desire to travel in Europe as “penis envy”, women were surrounded by sexist crap on every side. The book itself is great: narrow in its focus, not at all even-handed, written with a blazing energy that must have hit the women of the 60s like a cleansing fire. Read it along with Mary McCarthy’s The Group, my novel of the year, set in 1933 but published in 1963. Following the lives of eight new graduates from Vassar women’s college, it’s a literary soap opera, a documentary record of 1930s New York, and one of those books that should never have dropped off the radar.

Kathryn Carmody

Programme manager of Writers Week at the New Zealand Festival.

You know you’re lucky when people are willing to hire you to do something you’ve always loved doing – reading. Some of those Writers Week books I’ve recently derived great pleasure from for “work” include Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and both of Elizabeth Knox’s latest. Jill Trevelyan’s biography of Peter McLeavey is something I’ve been looking forward to since I first heard a whisper of its possible existence, and for the young at heart who enjoy their illustrations packed with detail, a visual feast awaits in Maps by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinscy. Year after year, my book club keeps me reading widely with their excellent suggestions. So far this year, we’ve enjoyed: All that I Am by Anna Funder; Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple; The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff; May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes; Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn; The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam. For my own personal interest and enjoyment, I’ve been dipping into One Human in Height by Rachel O’Neill. Plus, when the New Zealand Books: A Quarterly Review arrives I go to bed early and read it cover to cover, all in one go.

Craig Cliff

Writer, who released the novel The Mannequin Makers and spent much of the year in the US as recipient of Creative New Zealand’s 2013 University of Iowa International Writing Program Residency.

I read and enjoyed a number of large books this year, including (of course!) Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (as harrowing and tedious and terrific as I could have ever wanted), but many shorter books left big impressions. Foremost was Runaway Horse by Martin Walser, a mere 109 pages in English translation. I was in a second-hand bookshop with a German friend and he wouldn’t let me leave without buying a copy. It’s funny and moving in ways I’ve not encountered on the page before. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (128 pages) and Alice McDermott’s new novel, Someone (232 pages), were both one-day reads, although their impact lingers still. Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked by Ivan Vladislavic (183 pages) dismantles his city in a series of snapshots and achieves what I’d thought impossible: I’d now consider going back to Johannesburg, although as a very different kind of tourist. 2013 was also a strong year for short fiction, my three favourites being Tenth of December by George Saunders, We Others: New and Selected Stories by Stephen Millhauser and Two Girls in a Boat by Emma Martin.

Lyell Cresswell


José Saramago’s The Notebook is a blog – a log book, a soapbox, a plea for sanity covering the last year of his life. It can be contentious and opinionated or apt and cogent and gives an intimate picture of this wonderful writer. Rebecca West can also be opinionated. Her encyclopaedic masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is compulsive – full of wit, traveller’s tales and acute historical observations. Hans Fallada’s gripping record of life in Nazi Germany, Alone in Berlin, tells how a small and useless gesture in the face of cruelty and subjugation, enables ordinary people to keep their dignity. How would we respond in the face of such terror? Two short and concise novels with not a word wasted: a mysterious journey of self-discovery – Indian Nocturne – by Antonio Tabucchi and Colm Tóibín’s short “what if” novel The Testament of Mary. Here we see the agony of a vulnerable woman trying to make sense of the horrific loss of her enigmatic son, while facing bullying from John and Paul – who want to put words into her mouth to suit their own purpose. Just now I am caught in the middle of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. It oozes West Coast atmosphere and is unravelling with ingenious clarity.

Kiran Dass

Reviewer, literary journalist and bookseller.

Book of the year for me is Donna Tartt’s explosive The Goldfinch. Her writing is so elegantly refined. Some might quibble but I liked it even more than the superb The Secret History. I also loved Meg Wolitzer’s smart, gutsy satire The Interestings. I have been luxuriating in The Love Object: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien, a glorious retrospective spanning five decades of her short stories. O’Brien’s sophisticated stories are racy, thrilling and a joy to read. Wilson Neate’s robust Read & Burn: A Book About Wire looks at one of the most singularly transcendent groups to emerge from Britain’s post-punk era. And remember when high-charting pop/art duo and nutcases KLF burnt a million quid in 1994? KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burnt a Million Pounds by John Higgs is a hilarious look at the subversive, wild incident. Since I discovered Edward St Aubyn last year, I have been bingeing on his noxious drug- and alcohol-drenched novels about dysfunctional posh English families. With wonderfully droll titles such as Never MindBad News and Some Hope, the Patrick Melrose series is brutal domestic realism at its best. And as a fan of Ted Kotcheff’s film adaptation, I also loved Kenneth Cook’s menacing, dusty, beer-soaked Ocker chiller Wake in Fright.

Ted Dawe

Children’s writer, whose Into the River won the young adult fiction category and Margaret Mahy Book of the Year award at this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

I spent last summer reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and it has dominated my reading since. Everything else seems like alcohol-free wine. I read those big pulpy biogs by/about Rod Stewart and Keith Richards. These dudes emerged vastly less interesting than they had been before I started. In Thailand, I stumbled across a copy of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal. It restored my faith in the memoir as a genre. James Sallis interested me so I tracked down Drive after seeing the movie and enjoyed it so much I sent away for Driven; both were very engaging displays of what a thriller can do. It seemed pointless reading another war book after the mighty War and Peace but The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers was utterly enthralling. Finally, I am a great Julian Barnes fan but I found his Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending underwhelming. I picked up his Levels of Life ready to be disappointed and it blew me away. So much for prizes!

Megan Dunn

Art writer, projects manager of Booksellers New Zealand and co-host of the Listener Book Club.

2013 was the year non-fiction saved my life, or at least the year I changed my formerly ice-cold attitude towards it. I took Harry Ricketts’ class in creative non-fiction at Victoria University in the second semester and instantly warmed to the cut and paste aesthetic of David Shields, perhaps best exemplified in his 2010 work, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. But Shields’ latest book, How Literature Saved My Life, really got me thinking about the tyranny of the novel. Reading Shields feels a bit like being an undergrad again, hanging out with a naughty professor; he shares my predilection for collage and his writing is packed with books I’d not heard of but felt compelled to read immediately – eg Renata Adler’s Speedboat. I also adored The Rhinoceros from the collection An Elemental Thing by American essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger. It is, in the words of a fellow student, “a work of art”. Weinberger contributed the elegiac prose poem The Ghosts of Birds to Shane Cotton: The Hanging Sky, a glamorous new hardback on Cotton’s paintings from 2007-12. Published by Christchurch Art Gallery to accompany its touring exhibition of the same title, it does justice to Cotton’s work but also gives his career substantial critical evaluation. The stand-out essay is The Treachery of Images by curator Robert Leonard: daring and insightful. And I’ve just finished Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer. Jill Trevelyan’s biography is a comprehensive, poised account of McLeavey’s career and influence that is guided by grace – like the man himself. My top find of 2013 was My 1980s and Other Essays by poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum. I read his think-piece on Blondie, Debbie Harry at the Supermarket, then stocked up on his back catalogue.

Anne Else

Writer and reviewer, who this year released The Colour of Food: A Memoir of Live, Love & Dinner.

A rare treat this year: The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout’s new novel. Resolutely low-key yet full of resonance, it has difficult but important things to say about what it means to be a man now. Closer to home is The Owl That Fell from the Sky, Brian Gill’s beautifully shaped (and published) collection of curatorial curiosities. He weaves a cat’s cradle tying together the world and New Zealand creatures, past and present. Escaping into the past altogether, this was also the year I plunged into Marcel Proust, starting with a free e-copy of Swann’s Way, then the full 2000 pages (not the latest translation, but a good one) for $2.99. It’s like a travelling spa bath – I slip down into its incredibly long, meandering yet precise sentences whenever I want, rolling slowly from admiration to revulsion and back. Nothing but admiration, though, for a completely different kind of deep reflection on a writing life – Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Although it’s useful to have read other biographies first, her intense focus on particular objects is deployed with immense skill to reveal the full breadth and depth of the world Austen knew – and wrote into her novels.

Gigi Fenster

Writer, whose novel The Intentions Book was a fiction finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.

This year I read more non-fiction than usual, mainly because I discovered Tony Judt. His Thinking the Twentieth Century (a conversation with Timothy Snyder) is a truly great analysis of 20th-century philosophy. The Memory Chalet, I found more accessible, and more personal, but no less profound. I was particularly moved by the essay Captive Minds, in which Judt discusses Polish poet Czesław Miłosz’s analysis of intellectuals who revered Stalin. I had an aunt who was such a person – a biting intellect, she was a staunch Stalinist until her death in the 1980s. Friends whom I tell about her are inclined to think I’ve made her up. I can now refer them to Judt, who will teach them my aunt was not alone, and that being intellectual is not necessarily an antidote to servility. Judt’s discussion of the paralysing illness that ultimately killed him is naked and tragic, but no less brilliant for it. The closing cry of this essay – “If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have” – is doubly moving coming from a man aware his words were already beginning to fall. On the fiction front, Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches, Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home stand out. All three somehow contrive to take the shortest route to the heart of a matter. All three pack a lot of content into a few sparse words. All three have much to teach me about cutting back, cutting back.

Karl du Fresne

Columnist, journalist and regular Listener contributor.

Can a book be simultaneously entertaining and depressing? I wouldn’t have thought so, but Rachel Buchanan has pulled it off. Stop Press: The Last Days of Newspapers is an affectionate, nostalgic requiem for the print medium. As New Zealand and Australian newspapers flounder in a crisis partly of their own making, Buchanan – a New Zealand journalist who has worked on both sides of the Tasman and seen the brave new world from the inside – reflects on what we’re losing. It’s witty and perceptive, but painful, too.

Marti Friedlander

Photographer, who this year released the memoir Self-Portrait.

The book I’ve loved and read and reread is Claude Lanzmann’s memoir The Patagonian Hare. He’s narcissistic but has reason to be so, as he tells seemingly effortlessly about his extraordinary life and the people who inhabited it. Of course, that he made the film Shoah is a testament to his extraordinary courage as well.

Jeremy Hansen

Editor of Home magazine and the book Modern: New Zealand Homes from 1938-1977, which was released this year.

The book I’ve gone back to again and again this year is the wondrous Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture, featuring Ishimoto Yasuhiro’s masterful late-1950s photographs of the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. Ishimoto’s images were originally published (and, to his chagrin, heavily cropped) in an influential book edited by the great Japanese modernist architect Kenzo Tange in 1960. This 2010 volume tells the story of the production of the original book and showcases Ishimoto’s gorgeous shots without Tange’s control-freak cropping. It raises fascinating questions about editing and the publishing process. It also makes me want to decamp to Kyoto every time I open it. Another non-fiction favourite this year was Phaidon Press’s Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances. Written by her long-time gallerist and friend, Arne Glimcher, this intimate, beautifully designed book gently examines the artist’s outsider lifestyle and legacy and features reproductions of her breathtaking minimalist paintings along with copies of her hand-written lectures and other first-person musings. It has been the perfect way to get better acquainted with an artist I didn’t know enough about. On the fiction front, I loved spending time with Reno, the motorcycle-racing protagonist of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. This novel divided people and I can see its flaws, especially the opaqueness of its settings, which seem detached and dreamy rather than right-there realistic. But there was something fresh in Reno’s combination of toughness and vulnerability and the way her artistic ambition and love life became such an explosive mix. I also adored Vanished Years, the second volume of Rupert Everett’s memoirs. Fabulously gossipy, heartbreakingly wistful and full of genuine LOLs, it made me wish he had a third volume coming out just in time for my summer holidays.

Helen Heath

Poet, whose Graft won the Best First Book Award for Poetry at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.

I’ve recently been enjoying the chance to read and reread a pile of poetry as co-editor for a collection of Kapiti poetry to be published by London-based letterpress printer/publisher Paekakariki Press. I’ve been rediscovering Therese Lloyd’s excellent Other Animals and enjoying newer works like Maria MacMillan’s gorgeous chapbook from Seraph Press, The Rope Walk, which is one of my favourite books for 2013. Seraph has once again shown us the beauty of the book as object. I’m looking forward to MacMillan’s full collection due out next year from VUP. Another young Kapiti woman to look out for is Rachel O’Neill, whose debut collection of prose poems – One Human in Height – was recently published by Hue & Cry. It’s a surprising collection, full of imaginative delights, just as poetry should be, and includes some of her original artwork. O’Neill is a multi-talented woman. For online reading, you can’t go past the newly launched 2013 edition of the 4th Floor journal. It’s a bumper issue, which marks the 20th anniversary of both the Whitireia publishing and creative writing programmes with over 120 separate poems and prose pieces. Great summer reading.

Gerald Hensley

Writer and former public servant, who this year released Friendly Fire: Nuclear Politics & the Collapse of Anzus, 1984-1987.

It is near the end of the year and a good time for a dive into less familiar reading. I am revisiting the best unknown novel of the last century, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki. It is set in Japan in the middle of World War II but has nothing to do with the fighting. He thought it an account of a family and a way of life that was dying; instead he wrote an elegy for the human condition. Amid all the histories of the earlier war that are about to emerge, you might like to try Ford Madox Ford’s long novel Parade’s End. Again, little about the trenches and much about the hero’s inability to cope. It also features Sylvia Tietjens, one of the great bitches of fiction, on a par with Pamela Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, another sequence, which is the English Marcel Proust but more readable. Alice Munro is rather better known since she has won the Nobel Prize. I am reading her latest collection of short stories but you can start anywhere in her tales of small-town Ontario. Each seems to have the heft of a full novel. Finally, an off-the-wall masterpiece, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin, which chronicles the court life and doings of several elfin kingdoms and is as witty, amoral and amusing as you could hope to read before Christmas.

Alexa Johnston

Biographer and art and food writer, who this year released Ladies, A Plate: Jams & Preserves.

It was first Irish, then English this year and a lot of Victorians. Anne Kennedy’s novel The Last Days of the National Costume is a marvellously engrossing story that led me back to enjoy her poetry again in The Darling North and the brilliant Sing-Song. Then came a chance find at a friend’s house of Jenny Uglow’s wonderful biography Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. Among her references is a 1930 book by Amy Cruse, The Englishman and his Books in the Early Nineteenth Century. Uglow notes that the book does include women readers and gives some intriguing insights into reading habits. I tracked down a copy and was completely taken with it. Who were the subscribers to Madame D’Arblay’s Camilla in 1796? What did children read in the schoolroom? Which books were read by the anti-slavery Clapham Sect – and what about books on politics and economics, periodicals, plays, poetry and of course novels? Cruse searched diaries, letters, essays and contemporary accounts to work out who was reading what and what they thought of it. A delightful celebration of the end-user. Barbara Pym’s diaries led me to John Betjeman’s radio talks, published on his centenary – Trains and Buttered Toast, about buildings, towns and eccentric historic personages, and Sweet Songs of Zion, about hymns and hymn writers, which kept me singing to myself as I read. Last of all, The Victorian Kitchen Garden by Jennifer Davies is a blueprint for elegant, time-consuming – and very satisfyingly productive – gardening.

Kapka Kassabova

Poet, memoirist and reviewer.

The bleakest material, in the hands of a genius, becomes a joy, as are these two masterpieces of fiction set in the mid-20th century. “Speaking for those who lie in the earth,” Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, translated heroically by Robert Chandler, is at over 800 pages too short. So spell-binding is it you only notice you’ve accidentally received a history degree when you turn the last page. Chasing the King of Hearts by Polish writer Hannah Krall is immense in its slimness. Tracing the nightmare journey through Nazi Europe of a young woman called Izolda, it has the harshest of laughs and the most surprisingly uplifting lessons in survival. Thanks to it, I discovered Peirene Press, a classy publisher of literary novellas in translation and am now chomping through their delectable list; I recommend the Peirene feast to all lovers of short literary fiction. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna, set in modern-day Croatia, has exquisitely sensuous writing, and is that rare beast – a perfect novel. For a learned and spirited adventure through the North European forest and fairy-tale tradition, Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland is your ticket (warning: it’s Britain-centric). And I was deeply affected by the life class that is Marti Friedlander’s new memoir, Self-Portrait. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be.

Anne Kennedy

Writer, who this year won the poetry category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for The Darling North and released the novel The Last Days of the National Costume.

First, three cardiovascular workouts: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, the novel with everything – form, imagination, poetry, plot. Because its Man Booker Prize win came so soon after publication and because it’s so hefty, there will have been a lot of hastily written reviews. Discussion has barely scratched the surface. The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn – more demanding because it’s not a page-turner, but this modernist pastiche is exhilarating to dwell in. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – halfway through, verdict so far: as sublime as The Secret History. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is robust and poignant on the subject of home. Short stories seem to be in again. I enjoyed Tenth of December by George Saunders, Dear Life by Alice Munro and Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie. Of a year bursting with good local poetry, four favourites are The Lifeguard: Poems 2008-2013 by Ian Wedde, Family Songbook by John Newton, The Odour of Sanctity by Amy Brown and A Book is a Book by Jenny Bornholdt – the Bornholdt mainly for children, but this adult found it delightful. Lastly, Matters of the Heart: A History of Interracial Marriage in New Zealand by Angela Wanhalla. You thought you knew about this, but you didn’t.

Sarah Laing

Writer and cartoonist, who this year released the novel The Fall of Light.

The book I enjoyed the most this year was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was fascinating to go inside a braiding salon, to examine blackness in America and Nigeria, to be drawn into a life and recognise so much in it even though it was different from my own. Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire also made it on to my best international fiction list. Graphic novels: I was given Chris Ware’s treasure box, Building Stories, and it is justification for the endurance of print. I’m completely in awe of Brecht Evans’s ink wash drawings in The Making Of, I loved Lisa Hanawalt’s subversive watercolours in My Dirty Dumb Eyes and I gobbled up Ellen Fourney’s confessional Marbles. Locally, there were so many great books out this year and I couldn’t keep up. I admired Emma Martin’s finely wrought short-story collection Two Girls in a Boat and Paula Green’s witty, moving poetry collection The Baker’s Thumbprint. I loved the blacked-out Auckland evoked in Anne Kennedy’s novel The Last Days of the National Costume and the magical valley in Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire. Toby Morris’s comic, Don’t Puke on your Dad, was charming. I still have to read Johanna Knox’s The Forager’s Handbook but I will before the last of my onion weed dies – there’s sure to be a tempura recipe I can use.

David Larsen

Writer, reviewer and Listener film critic.

We don’t talk enough about reading aloud. Not all good books read well out loud. All great books do. Mal Peet: “Everything I write, I read aloud to myself … if a text doesn’t work when you read it aloud, it doesn’t work on the page.” I’ve been reading aloud to my sons since they were very small. They are no longer small, and we still read aloud, mornings before breakfast and evenings before bed, because it’s fun and communal, and so many books get better when you hear them. The best things we’ve read this year were Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars (the final volume of his monumental Mars trilogy, which we began last year), Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck (I found a good voice for the angel Xas, although my French pronunciations were occasionally wobbly) and ER Eddison’s astonishingly read-aloudable The Worm Ouroboros. (A favourite book of mine since I was steered to it by this passing remark by Ursula Le Guin: “He really did write Elizabethan prose in the 1930s. His style is totally artificial, but it is never faked. If you love language for its own sake he is irresistible.”) We’re currently reading Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, because it’s one of the two books Eleanor Catton cites as most influential on The Luminaries, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov looked like a dark forest from which we could not be certain of emerging. My own private reading this year has very largely consisted of things I’ve ended up writing about in the Listener or elsewhere, but I’ve recently been steered towards a couple of delightful new discoveries by Lois Bujold’s Goodreads reviews (which, if you like a broad diet of things science fictional, science factual, historical and fantastic are worth following). Wen Spencer seems to have been publishing a novel a year for over a decade now. Her writing occasionally shows signs of haste, but these are dwarfed by the signs of a zestful intelligence joyfully at play. For a will-I-like-this taster, dive in with Tinker, the first volume of her Elfland series, in which the city of Pittsburgh is accidentally translated into another dimension, leading to complex political consequences involving magic, quantum theory, hover bikes and quite a lot of sex. A lot of my reading time goes towards staying abreast of the science fiction and fantasy field, so I’m embarrassed that Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series stayed off my radar until Bujold started writing about it. In a nutshell: police procedurals with urban fantasy elements and gathering subplots that slowly coalesce into the real plot. Very smart, very readable. Also, the best writing about London I’ve encountered for a while. Finally, the happiest surprise of my reading year came when a Boston-based cousin told me a friend of his had recently broken into print. Not to sound jaded, but book reviewers learn to dread novels-by-friends-of-friends, and I’m a slower than average reader. This was family, however, and that particular week time did allow, so I grabbed the e-book of Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead off Amazon. It’s a knockout. Dead god, contested will, rebellious young drop-out magician hired by mystical law firm to argue probate. Unlikely? Oh yes. But Gladstone’s world has its own carefully weighed specificity, the characters are great, and basically, this is not the book your cousin’s friend usually writes.

Graeme Lay

Writer, who this year released the novel The Secret Life of James Cook.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris is my choice for the best fiction read of 2013. Based on the unjust conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for espionage in 1895, an event seen through the eyes of Georges Picquart, another French army officer, the novel is a vivid depiction of fin de siècle France and the anti-Semitism inherent in that society. Gripping reading.

Tilly Lloyd


You mean other than The Luminaries? We gave Eleanor Catton 12/10 in August but on October 16 realised 16/10 would have been more prescient. Damien Wilkins was not too far below with his bio-fiction Max Gate, which portrays Thomas Hardy’s death with such nuance. Beautiful Ruins by recovering journalist Jess Walter has been enduring; a tragi-comedy with brains, largely populated by contemporary Hollywood producers, film-script wannabes and 1960s Italians, it is spliced with bits of film-script and memoir. Marvellous. Additionally, the original beautiful ruin – Richard Burton – is on Parky and Dick Cavett clips on YouTube. Hands down, the best nonfiction was Lloyd Jones’ lyrical reclamation of his family history in A History of Silence: A Memoir. Potent landscape writing, too. For similar reasons, I fell in love with the rising English critic and prose stylist Olivia Laing’s To the River, a geographical rumination along Virginia Woolf’s Ouse River. Laing’s most recent book, The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, explores F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams and Raymond Carver (that great canon of literary alcoholics) in a mash-up of memoir, literary criticism, travelogue and medical journalism. Very nice complexities.

Liam McIlvanney

Academic and crime writer, who this year released his second Gerry Conway novel, Where the Dead Men Go.

This was a vintage year for crime and poetry, often in the same volume. David Whish-Wilson’s Zero at the Bone showed Peter Temple is not the only Aussie crime novelist who can write most of his “literary fiction” peers into a cocked hat. Whish-Wilson’s novel intersperses stark sinewy action with plangently lyrical descriptions of the West Australian landscape in a pacey chronicle of Perth at the height of its gold-mining boom. The year’s other great crime novel – indeed, one of the great novels of this or any year – also had a gold-rush theme. I think it won some kind of prize in London. David Peace, the man who reinvented British crime fiction with his Red Riding quartet, has produced what will surely stand as his masterwork in Red or Dead. Approaching Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries in scale and ambition, Peace’s new work is a rigorous, daunting but ultimately joyful modernist epic on the methods and madness of the great Liverpool football manager Bill Shankly. In poetry, my most exciting discovery this year was the work of Charles Simic. I devoured 10 or 12 collections in succession, in time to appreciate the New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012, which distils half a century’s worth of spare, surreal and oddly tender lyrics.

Rose McIver

Actress on the rise in Hollywood, starring as Tinker Bell in TV series Once Upon a Time and appearing in Masters of Sex.

Having spent the last couple of years based largely in the US, I was so appreciative to have been given Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World by Steve Braunias. I can’t imagine feeling more homesick than I did reading these endearing, insightful essays about various communities in and around New Zealand. Braunias has the ability to bring to light the character of both the inhabitants and the places in this fantastic collection. In my hunger to mine the personality possessed by a town, I also thoroughly enjoyed a book called Fall on Your Knees by Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald. This novel explores a family living in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The wide-eyed reverence with which one of the central characters inhales New York on her travels really resonated with me, as a girl from a relatively small town experiencing a cosmopolitan city in my late teens and early twenties. Between reading both these books, and the incredible fiction/non-fiction fusion writings of Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines, I look back on these past few somewhat nomadic years feeling fortunate to have a sense of identity in New Zealand and abroad.

Part 3 in this series continues next week.

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