The year belonged to Fifty Shades Of Grey. Dominating bestseller lists, the return of erotic fiction saw publishers releasing a slew of copycat titles. Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele’s tie me up, tie me down romance was as huge with Kiwi readers as it was across the rest of the western world where it outsold even Harry Potter. Word is author EL James is hoping for a cameo in the upcoming screen version and in the meantime is working on some new love stories.
The rest of the buzz went to bigger, more established names. Marian Keyes published The Mystery Of Mercy Close, her first novel in three years following her epic battle with depression; JK Rowling released The Casual Vacancy, her first adult, non-Potter fiction to mixed reviews and substantially more modest sales; Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth garnered rave reviews, and Hilary Mantel scooped the Booker Prize for the second time with Bring Up The Bodies, the sequel to her previous winner Wolf Hall.
Here in New Zealand the biggest fuss surrounded Emily Perkins skilfully constructed piece of Virginia Woolf fan fiction, The Forrests, and the country’s premier literary prize for fiction went to Paula Morris’ Rangatira.
My pick of the year’s best is hardly exhaustive. Hundreds and thousands of titles have been released without me glancing within their pages. But I have read and reviewed fifty plus books on these pages and this is my selection of the standouts - the novels that thrilled, delighted and gripped me over the course of 2012. I’m prepared to stick my neck out and say you’ll find them great reading too.
Merivel: A Man Of His Time by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, $37.99)
A comic and soulful novel that is UK author Tremain’s long-awaited follow up to her bestseller of more than 20 years ago, Restoration. When we are reacquainted with 17th century physician Robert Merivel he is aged, melancholy and struggling to find a purpose for his existence. Fortunately his adventures are far from over. This picaresque tale sees our hero travelling to the French court in Versailles, falling in love, adopting a bear and being challenged to a duel.
Merivel is a delightful literary creation - vain, ridiculous and yet entirely lovable, and this amusing, thoughtful story with its consistently genius writing is my pick for book of the year.
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (HarperCollins, $36.99)
A hilarious and original supernatural thriller that had me hooked from the very first page. It is the story of Myfanwy Thomas who wakes up in a London park with no idea who she is and a note in her pocket that reads: “Dear you, the body that you are wearing used to be mine…” Myfanwy soon discovers a few crucial things. The first that she is a top operative for a secret government agency charged with safeguarding the world from supernatural threats; and the second that someone is trying to kill her. Armed only with the information she finds in letters that have been left for her, Myfanwy is plunged into an extraordinary world. A spoofy, inventive story, that’s entirely bonkers in places. I completely loved it.
Skylark by Jenny Pattrick (Black Swan, $37.99)
Skillfully blending history and fiction, this is Kiwi author Pattrick’s seventh novel and her most entertaining yet. Set in the mid-to-late 1800s, its heroine is the irrepressible Lily Alouette, the daughter of French street acrobats who die trying their luck on the Australian goldfields. Lily survives by becoming a performer in New Zealand’s fledgling entertainment industry, moving from circus to theatre and falling in love with a handsome horseman along the way.
Pattrick weaves many real figures and events into her story, but this is a novel that wears its research lightly and the voice of the irrepressible Lily makes it a joy to read despite the setbacks and tragedies of her life. A winner of a book from one of the country’s most talented storytellers.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Headline, $34.99)
A whimsical fairytale set in 1920s Alaska. Jack and Mable, a childless middle-aged couple, have decided to make a new start in the wilderness. Life is hard and lonely. When the first snow falls the couple build a snow girl, decorating it in mittens and a scarf. The next morning they wake to find the snow girl gone and a childish figure running through the trees, wearing the scarf. Is she real? Are they imagining her? The story has an ethereal quality, and Ivey creates lingering doubts. But gradually the snow child comes closer and they learn her name and something of her story.
Based on a Russian folk tale, this is a magical novel written in shiveringly good prose, with emotional depth and grit to balance out its feyness.
Red Ruby Heart In A Cold Blue Sea by Morgan Callan Rogers (Text, $37)
A wise and wonderful coming-of-age story with a mystery at its core and a flawed, feisty heroine. In 1960s Maine, Florine Gilbert is enjoying an idyllic childhood when her mother disappears without a trace while on holiday. Struggling with grief and the tortures of adolescence, Florine makes her share of mistakes, and suffers more setbacks and losses, battling her way through all of it. This is no depressing read but a warm, engaging novel peopled by memorable characters and it’s not difficult to get lost in its pages. A late-in-life fictional debut for its author Callan Rogers who is 60, the emotional maturity shines through from start to finish. Gorgeous reading.
Nine Days by Toni Jordan (Text, $37)
Aussie writer Jordan’s third novel is a departure from her previous sassy, humorous work. Inspired by a wartime photograph of a woman kissing her sweetheart goodbye at Melbourne railway station, Jordan has constructed a story around several generations of a working class family, telling of one day in each of their lives. It opens in 1939 with Australia on the brink of war and young Kip Westaway forced to leave school to help support the family following the death of his father. The novel reaches the present day, but the chapters skip backwards and forwards between the generations so the reader has to piece things together and work out the connections between each person.
Cleverly crafted and tightly written, with a central message about the fragility of life, this novel is deeply sad at times but leavened with brightness and wit.
With a strong social message, this is award-wining US author Kingsolvers’ most accessible book yet. It’s the story of dirt poor Tennessee farmer’s wife Dellarobia Turnbow who witnesses what appears to be a miracle on the mountain above her home – the fir trees are blazing and sparking with orange. Rather than a vision, this turns out to be a sign something is out of kilter with the environment. The fir trees are full of monarch butterflies that ought to be over-wintering in Mexico rather than the Appalachian mountains. As word of the phenomenon spreads, Dellarobia becomes a minor celebrity and scientists arrive on the hard-scrabble farm, filling her head with ideas and opening up new possibilities.
There are times when the science overwhelms the story, but for the most part Kingsolver’s sermon on climate change is an involving and powerful read. She writes brilliant, beautiful prose and has a finely tuned sense of people and place. Memorable.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (W&N, $39.99)
The creepiest, most cunning and chillingly sinister story yet about a relationship breaking down. Handsome Nick Dunne and his beautiful wife Amy are celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary and Amy has organised their traditional treasure hunt. But that evening when he gets home, Nick finds the front door open, signs of a struggle and his wife missing. As the days go by with no news of her, he becomes the main suspect with every clue the police find seeming to point his way. But did he really do it? Flynn strings along her readers ingeniously and there is a huge twist in the tale when we discover who isn’t telling the truth.
Flynn has a disturbing understanding of the darker human sides of human emotion and a talent for suspense. This is her third novel and definitely her best yet.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Text, $37)
A gem of a book fusing the romance of musty old bookstores with the brave new digital world. Clay Jannon is a San Francisco web designer left jobless by the recession. He lands a position as the night clerk in a curious second-hand bookshop run by the enigmatic Mr Penumbra who instructs him to stay away from the odd volumes that line the tall shelves at the back of the shop. Of course, Clay can’t help taking a peek. And along with a posse of successful, eccentric friends he embarks on a quest to solve the mystery behind the bookshop that takes him to the forefront of what technology can offer as well as right to the heart of a centuries old puzzle.
A quirky, fizzy read that’s a little self-conscious about its cleverness but amusing enough to make up for it.
Dinner At Rose’s by Danielle Hawkins (A&U, $35)
Chick lit doesn’t usually make it into anyone’s “best of” lists but I’m breaking the unwritten rule for this one because it's a spirited and very Kiwi book written with energy and lots of love. Set in a fictional King Country town it's the story of physiotherapist Jo Connelly who has fled back to her hometown to escape the ruins of a relationship. Between her eccentric Aunt Rose and her childhood mate, hunky dairy farmer Matt, there’s plenty to keep her busy. A classic will they, won’t they romance develops between Jo and Matt but what lifts this book above the rest is its heart and humour. With a wonderful cast of rural Kiwi characters, plenty of pathos and loads of funny banter this is a reader-pleaser of a debut for Otorohanga vet Hawkins.