Welcome to the Listener’s annual list of what our reviewers consider to be the best reading of the past year, with recommendations in many genres including fiction, crime, biography, history and science.
Carl Shuker has the right stuff to keep the reader engrossed and shaken to the end with this relentlessly gripping novel. Read fellow best NZ novelist Elizabeth Knox's interview with Carl Shuker.
Former stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes combines her classical studies and bold humour to joyfully retell the Greek epic Iliad from an all-female perspective.
The best-selling author of Room delivers a touching tale of a retired New York chemistry professor given sudden responsibility for a great-nephew he has never met and they bond over a family mystery on a trip to the South of France.
The author of A Brief History of Seven Killings weaves a stunning tapestry of violence, desire and belonging as a fractious fellowship navigates an expansive, perilous and legendary Africa.
After waiting years for her next novel, Elizabeth McCracken fans new and old rejoice at the droll, inviting story of Bertha Truitt and candlepin bowling, ghost hunting, contortionism, kleptomania, tall tales, spontaneous combustion, melancholia, confidence men, alcoholism, orphans, deep love and profound loss.
Dive into this brilliant, funny and poignant Booker Prize finalist written mostly in one long sentence. Adjust your settings and enjoy manifold rewards.
An epic tale of life, rebirth and processing power nests one weird and enthralling future world inside another. From one of cyberpunk sci-fi’s founding fathers.
Wrote Catherine Robertson in her review comparing Evaristo’s work with that of fellow Booker winner Margaret Atwood: “This is a novel of the times, but it is also a beautiful, clever and enduring work.”
Chandler meets Orwell in a witty, propulsive noir satire set in a future California where deception itself is criminal, and truth’s toughest enforcer has a guilty conscience.
Read more: Win the Listener's 100 Best Books of 2019
US novelist David Vann’s fictionalisation of his father’s suicide crackles with bleakness and beauty, terror and truth.
Henry is 75, trying to decide whether his utterly decent life means utterly nothing, and you’ll fall for him – utterly.
Silber confirms her place alongside evocative writers of daily life such as Alice Munro with this novel of braided stories whose tapestry of seemingly disconnected characters reveals how each of these lives is causally connected in ways that show the wonder of simple gestures and the power of everyday moments.
Ian McEwan’s latest novel is an audacious engagement with the biggest of mysteries. What is consciousness? What makes us human? What is a mind?
An all-encompassing feast of a read enriched with magical realism, which takes you deep into the wild west of late-1800s America, seen through the eyes of law-breaking young immigrant Lurie Mattie and pioneer woman Nora Lark. Both struggle to survive in the unforgiving desert of the US southwest.
Residents of a rural English village, who literally rubbish their environment, and furious ancient primeval forces are mediated by an intuitive little boy whose future becomes a metaphor in Max Porter’s soaring ode to the healing power of nature.
Four friends become three friends become two friends as Tessa Hadley quietly, surgically shows how intellectuals can be idiots.
Allusive and elusive, evocative and elegant, Elizabeth Smither’s new novel glows with metaphor and mystery.
Two faded lovers meet every month in a tawdry New York boarding house, and it somehow becomes a cleaving love story.
As two Irishmen lurk in a Spanish ferry terminal hoping to ambush the beloved runaway daughter of one of them, they reminisce about the love and violence in their dodgy pasts. Kevin Barry takes a scalpel to the heart in this tender, witty and brutal novel.
Shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, Salman Rushdie’s reworking of Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a sprawling, cluttered, wildly comic take on contemporary America.
Small-town New Zealand, small-town politics, small-town self-puffery – Owen Marshall’s seventh novel is an astute but partial portrait of a local politician confronting the price he pays for prominence.
Nina Stibbe is one of the funniest contemporary writers around – she won the 2019 Wodehouse Prize for this tale of Lizzie, an 18-year-old dental assistant in 1980s Leicester, her wannabe-writer mother and her racist boss.
With its digressions on the lives of Katherine Mansfield and Rilke, Spring, the third of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, continues her themes of mourning and intentional moral purpose in the maddening world of Brexit and Donald Trump, but it is also, as its title suggests, an echo of hope.
Elif Shafak predicates her extraordinary and luminous novel on the possibility that life extends for precious minutes beyond physical death – and then what compelling memories and stories may come to central character Tequila Leila?
An epic novel that moves between real and fantasy worlds, The Absolute Book’s power is in the skill and pace of Knox’s story-telling, the perfect spinning of the intricate plot, the sharp dialogue and luminous evocation of place. Read fellow best NZ novelist Carl Shuker's interview with Elizabeth Knox.
Naive first-year Victoria University student Erica, hellbent on finding her first boyfriend, chooses poorly when she hooks up with Donny, an abusive manipulator who tries to flatten her innate intelligence in Laura Southgate’s subtle, surprisingly witty debut.
Unmoored 30-something Rose inveigles her way into the Hampstead home of a reclusive writer looking to uncover secrets from the past in this rich and mesmerising novel by the author of The Miniaturist that explores ambition, the writing life and issues of identity.
Mesmeric, disturbing and brilliantly written, this read-again novel is about parallel lives (no mere time travel here), madness and uncertainty, and about the possibility of saving our crazy, broken planet.
Recent revelations in New Zealand make Colson Whitehead’s consummate novel of savagery and guttering hope in a Florida boys’ home even more pertinent and powerful.
An emotional roller coaster of a book about two very different young people: one, the precocious Augusta in suburban England; the other, Parfait, born in war-torn East Africa. Each is hit by their own tragedy, but follow an uneven path to find a home that brings joy and hope.
In Robert Harris’ foreboding, mind-whirling redefinition of past, present and future, a priest in medieval England discovers documents alluding to a time – the 2020s – when so-called sophisticated civilisations have collapsed, with the subsequent reversion to medieval norms shaped by starvation, superstition and a ban on technology.
Deeply affecting drama about a young professional couple who leave London for a holiday, but are shadowed by the tainting lure of extreme wealth, especially when events centred around an isolated French hotel mask activities stretching beyond their comprehension.
John Lanchester’s riveting ecological-dystopian tale of a Britain barricaded from a rising sea by a giant wall patrolled by young conscripts feels scarily prescient.
Rain has stopped falling in the Irish village of Faha, and lives slowly open in a wistful, generous novel.
Malaysian author Tash Aw’s tale of irrational murder and the exploitation of migrant workers is a gruelling but rewarding read.
Another satisfying delight from Otorohanga farmer and vet Danielle Hawkins, with humour that requires real skill and intelligence to pull off.
Crime & Thriller
When an Israeli citizen is murdered in an apparent contract killing in Paris, a Mossad spy and a Clouseau-ish French cop join forces to solve the crime. A jaw-clampingly great literary spy novel.
It may sound like a murder-mystery but it’s a much stranger and more discursive tale in which the obsessive author, who lives at the Belvedere, a Baltimore hotel-turned-apartment building, spends 10 years investigating a fellow resident whose death was deemed a suicide.
It simmers and twists; nobody can be trusted, nobody is very likeable even as they present as the nice folk next door. This terrific tale has more than a whiff of Patricia Highsmith about it.
Zesty thriller that blends great characterisation with gut-punch moments and black humour as a woman with a secret has her life upturned and becomes obsessed with a true-crime podcast.
There’s a bristling rage beneath the lyrical surface of the second instalment in Attica Locke’s Highway 59 series. Black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews tries to save an indoctrinated boy and take down white supremacists.
An exquisite, stylish mystery entwined with racism and gender politics, focused on two very different women, both shackled by prejudice, both yearning for more in mid-1960s Baltimore. Masterful storytelling.
Although fresh voices may have garnered global attention for their “outback noir”, Garry Disher shows why he’s the master who paved the way. An exiled cop investigates the nastiest of crimes. A novel of sweat-inducing authenticity.
A terrifically well-paced and very frightening examination of the ways women are portrayed in the thriller genre – and it poses the question of why we read it. Also, the idiosyncrasies and power struggles of a university department ring true and are very funny.
The hard-hitting and heavyweight coda to an epic trilogy set against the failed war on drugs. From street violence to boardroom corruption, it’s like a lightly varnished documentary, ferociously told.
Compulsive and creepy page-whirrer as a widower and his young son move to a village where a serial killer once operated. A tale of fathers and sons, family and nightmares, full of darkness and heart.
The author of the Dublin Murder Squad series reinvents her procedural approach with a book told by Toby Hennessy, a smooth PR guy and a potential suspect, with others, in a murder some years ago. But he has lost big chunks of his memory in a brutal attack at the outset of the story, so who to believe?
Compromised characters and fizzing prose as our Crown Prince of Crime ventures into heartland America. Disgraced former sheriff’s deputy Noah Harper is called on to rescue a young girl for the second time.
Modern Life & Politics
Ronan Farrow’s gripping account of his investigation into Harvey Weinstein, in which he battles corporate inertia, corruption and smear campaigns, dodges Israeli spies hired to tail him, and, finally, brings the Hollywood producer’s activities to public notice.
Matt Stoller explains how consumerism and populism jolted American democracy with the loudest of tangerine bangs in 2016 and how the real effects of authoritarian rule, ultra-wealth and a shrunken global middle class are yet to be seen.
This does exactly what it says on the tin: rips open, in calm but justifiably outraged fashion, the ways in which a society where men-as-the-default hinders, discriminates against and even actively endangers (think crash-test dummies) women.
Always on the right side of history, left-winger Naomi Klein pulls together climate and identity politics to warn us of the real calamity of our age, starting with the Christchurch mosque attacks.
Sharp, swift punches from the girl on fire, but it’s not just Greta Thunberg’s voice we hear in these pithy speeches. Here, too, are the “are we there yet” pleas we can’t afford to ignore any more from all of our children.
This blackly funny record of the Trump White House, partly sourced from conversations with schemer, creep and crackpot Steve Bannon, is worth reading for the laughs alone.
Social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff, who popularised the term “surveillance capitalism”, lays out in granular detail the worst behaviour of the so-called Faangs – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google – for what it is: the quest to predict and control our behaviour in order to make yet more money from us, often yielding to totalitarian regimes in the process.
Expatriate New Zealander and Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield delivers an insightful, entertaining and frequently alarming study of North Korea’s Dear Leader and the dangerously dysfunctional Kim dynasty from which he sprang.
The extraordinarily thorough American journalist shadowed three women for a total of eight years – even moving to their hometowns – to research this work of creative non-fiction that centres on each woman’s sexual desires. It’s as timely as it is hard to put down.
Sure, ride your bike, but the deputy editor of New York magazine argues that only action by governments can save us from the catastrophic effects of climate change in this compelling read.
Compelling biography of Stalin’s most infamous and dashing spy, Richard Sorge, the man who tried to warn his boss that the Nazis were about to invade. A near unbelievable story of a crafty stealer of secrets, and a scene-stealing rogue.
The celebrated author of Wild Swans and Mao: The Unknown Story delivers a historically and psychologically fascinating biography of the Soong sisters of Shanghai, who, through their marriages, connections and intelligence, influenced the direction and future of early-20th-century China.
What began as a simple magazine assignment to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1969 Manson Family murders expanded into a 20-year odyssey for journalist Tom O’Neill, whose obsessive – and fascinating – investigation uncovered wrongdoing far beyond Charles Manson’s orbit.
The eminent medieval historian’s illuminating biography tackles Charlemagne, aka Charles the Great, who, as the first Holy Roman Emperor and warrior king, expanded the Kingdom of the Franks (much of today’s Western Europe) in the late 8th to early 9th centuries, earning the titles “the Father of Europe” and “Europe’s first crusader” along the way.
British historian Philip Mansel follows his many books about the French monarchy with a long, fascinating gaze upon the Sun King, while telling the story of how this once mild-mannered prince attempted to conquer the known world, build a temple to himself (Versailles) and starve his country to the point of revolution.
Vast in scope and with many demonic twists and turns, William Dalrymple’s history of the East India Company also traces the bloody decline of the Mughal Empire and becomes a studied warning about extreme corporate power.
A stone’s throw from lively Lyttelton, New Zealand’s only leper colony, perched on the edge of Quail Island, is dragged out of obscurity in this brief but telling history of friendship, dedication, loneliness, fear and appalling nimbyism.
The British writer and former nun casts off narrow, rigid, literalistic readings of Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Chinese scriptures and texts to expose the original humanism and transcendence at the heart of the world’s religions.
Following on from his 2016 book, The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000, Vincent O’Malley walks us through the causes, course and consequences of the New Zealand Wars, while arguing why we really must acknowledge this history.
Historian Monty Soutar records in meticulous detail the history of the all-Māori New Zealand Pioneer Battalion from Gallipoli to the Western Front, moving them from bit-part players to centre stage and turning a Māori gaze on a largely unknown part of our history.
The buoyant second memoir from the one-time bassist in Split Enz and Citizen Band charts a life and career diverted from the stage by anxiety issues, but his passion for music – and the talents of others, whether his early bandmates or the kids involved in his Play It Strange trust to encourage young songwriters – is infectious.
This collection of personal essays – with musings on everything from sex to racism – marks the 29-year-old Wellington software engineer as a bold new voice among the young-adult children of Asian migrants who know they owe their parents much.
A poetic, anecdotal and artistic reflection on New Zealand as an oceanic continent, with strong conservation overtones and a fine way of expressing them.
A seven-month odyssey involving 80 train journeys across the world’s most remarkable railways, with a vivid reflection on life and what it means to be a global citizen – perfect for train and travel lovers.
The autobiography of the veteran Dunedin rock great is grim, funny, sad and riveting and especially affecting when it veers away from his haphazard music career to ponder his family and friendships.
Academic and science journalist Rebecca Priestley visits Antarctica three times in seven years and describes these visits and her life in-between in fascinating and often humorous detail. An utterly engrossing, surprisingly relatable memoir combining science, awe, anxiety, family life – and the spectre of climate-change devastation.
Former New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris’ short, light-hearted memoir is a love letter to Greece, chronicling 40 years of her obsession with the country’s history and language, and her often amusing travel hiccups there.
When Auckland writer and film-maker Peter Wells was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer last year, his subsequent diary chronicling the humbling process of confronting the inevitable, in hospital and at home, eventually expanded into this generous record, published just before his death in February. It’s a bittersweet finale to his enduring cultural legacy.
This collection of the graphic artist’s best comics records her endearingly neurotic life as a Karori mother of three and a procrastinating creative – and also weaves in key scenes from her childhood – in a book that’s never anything but, well, frank.
After a confessional doco or two and the biopic Rocket Man, this autobiography shows Elton John still has plenty of stories to tell, scores to settle and reasons to beat himself up for his past lifestyle excesses, all in a hilariously entertaining memoir that doesn’t require fanclub membership to enjoy.
Witi Ihimaera’s second memoir mixes mythology, identity, alienation, sly humour and great anecdotes and even tells you a bit about the author.
From a woman who, as well as doing many other things, toured overseas with her 1970s All Blacks hubby, Bob Burgess, comes a wise, compassionate collection of personal essays that forms a nationally important chronicle of our social and political history.
The New Zealand screenwriter brings the flawed German Pope Benedict and his humble successor, Argentinian Pope Frances, to full colour in this dramatic book based on his earlier play – now a Netflix film – which also chronicles Vatican secrets and skulduggery surrounding the two pontiffs.
Not only a fascinating account of five New Zealanders who made it big in Australia, but also feisty enough to attack some current pieties. Biography with the gloves off.
Art & Literature
Marking the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth, Peter Simpson takes us on a comprehensive and learned journey through the first 40 years of the artist’s life, pointing out the detail of individual paintings, exhibitions, friendships and influences.
A jam-packed and beautifully illustrated history of craft, craft art and object art as it was cut and carved, stitched and sewn, hammered and hewn into a uniquely New Zealand story of art, decoration, thrift, protest, cultural encounter and identity.
E HEI TIKI: An Enduring Treasure in a Cultural Continuum by Dougal Austin (Te Papa Press)
A welcome, some would say long-overdue, insight into the history, mystery, meaning and manufacture of the varied forms and features of our most ubiquitous Māori motif by Te Papa curator Dougal Austin, supported by a stunning gallery of photographed hei tiki.
A frightfully British, frightfully absorbing history of the publishing house, with TS Eliot (chirpy), WH Auden (prickly), Lawrence Durrell (lofty) and many, many more.
A gorgeous survey of the work of leading abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht as she reaches the 50th year of her remarkable career, with academic Luke Smythe – her former cataloguer – unfolding her transition from early figurative painting to the “infinite possibilities” of abstraction, and the real-life events and places that have inspired her.
Turning the pages of this book is like entering into the silence of the rooms of the many homes, churches and public buildings designed by gregarious, gifted modernist John Scott. The Hawke’s Bay architect is explored here in brief but highly readable essays and exceptional photography.
That time in 1797-98 when great British poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth (and, occasionally, his sister, Dorothy) wandered the hills of Somerset ruminating on Kubla Khan and Tintern Abbey is brought to life in Adam Nicolson’s lyrical literary history.
This engrossing 70th anniversary exploration of the roots and the legacy of Orwell’s masterwork was the best book-about-a-book of the year. Read Russell Baillie's interview with Dorian Lynskey.
In an elegant correction to a male-dominated literary history, poet, critic, anthologist, judge and all-round poetry champion Paula Green builds a metaphorical house to shine an illuminating light on the work of 201 New Zealand women poets from the past 150 years.
Science & Nature
Six legs rule in a buzzing, brimming paean to creepies and crawlies everywhere.
A beautifully illustrated stroll down the many garden paths of a celebrated Canterbury garden.
This attack on recent rationalisations for racism is one of the year’s best polemics. Erudite, detailed, very readable and taking no damned nonsense.
The bestselling American-Brit’s 23rd book delivers on the cover’s promise in his trademark breezy and engaging style, methodically dissecting the vascular, digestive, skeletal, neurological and reproductive systems, exploring the nature of disease and the limits of medicine and dispensing dozens of believe-it-or-not factoids.
The New Zealand forest, argues Auckland Museum’s Robert Vennell, is a supermarket, pharmacy, garden centre, hunting ground and hardware store. To prove the point, he provides an entertaining catalogue of bush kai, trees for carving, leaves for weaving and plants for healing.
Poetic, balanced and deftly nuanced, Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet is both a respectful homage to the natural world and a celebration of those dogged people who choose to live with it, not from it.
If the visualisation of data can be counted as an expression of science, then this is a book to be treasured. It shows New Zealand in ways that need no words to leave a deep impact – such as the pages covered in hundreds of thousands of data dots, with each dot representing a child growing up in poverty.
Just as Donald Trump has begun to extract the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change (while facing impeachment hearings), science historian Naomi Oreskes argues that we can and should trust the science on climate change and many other issues, because of its self-correcting processes towards consensus.
ZEALANDIA: The Valley That Changed a Nation by Jim Lynch (Kōtare Publications)
Forget sports idols, arts icons and business barons and read a real New Zealand hero’s account of establishing Wellington’s wondrous wildlife refuge, Zealandia.
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This article was first published in the November 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.