Top Books of 2013
1. Julian Barnes – Levels of Life (Random House)
A blending of forms, Levels of Life traces the early history of hot-air ballooning, the relationships of Sarah Bernhardt, and the death of Barnes’ wife, Pat Kavanagh. The first two plots may seem almost irrelevant by the end, but are entirely necessary – a defense for both author and reader when approaching such a difficult subject. More honest in its approach to grief and loss than anything else I’ve read, this brief (barely 100 pages) and brilliant work shows the emotional impact that writing is capable of at its best.
2. Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries (Allen & Unwin) (Interview)
Complex, artistic, literary, a deserved winner of the Man Booker. But also a joyful page-turner – a murder mystery with a cast of colourful characters, set during the New Zealand gold-rush. Catton seems like she’s had tremendous fun with the prose, and the gradually decreasing chapter lengths give the book an increasing sense of urgency despite its 800 pages, with an open-ended pay-off that I found delightful.
3. Nicolas Rothwell – Belomor (Text Publishing) (Interview)
A strange, elegiacal work, part memoir, part fiction, part history; Rothwell’s tales are fascinating slices of life, history, art, and culture. In a list full of beautifully written books, this is the one whose prose has stayed with me the most, and while what Rothwell has to say is definitely interesting, it’s the way he says it that made this one of my favourites.
4. Meg Wolitzer – The Interestings (Random House) (Interview)
From children at a summer camp in the 60s, to adults trying to make sense of what adulthood means, this book follows a small group of friends through their lives, allowing the reader a look at recent American history, or at least a certain privileged slice of it. This is a book concerned with talent, with privilege and with what it means to be happy, but by investing so much in the characters (Wolitzer does a wonderful job of distinguishing the voices, personalities and desires of the cast), The Interestings is able to wear its many themes lightly and entertainingly.
5. Philipp Meyer – The Son (Random House) (Interview)
A look further back into America’s history (this time the 1800’s to 1980’s Texas), this is a vicious, violent book filled with flawed and angry characters, and I loved every page of it.
Honourable mentions: There was some great non-fiction work this year, and I want to highlight The Coat Route, by Meg Lukens Noonan (Scribe), Fukushima, by Mark Willacy (Pan Macmillan), and Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel (Scribe) as particularly great examples of the genre, in a very strong year. Also, repeating last year’s honorable mention for Sergio De La Pava’s novel A Naked Singularity, which received an Australian release this year and remains brilliant.
1. George Saunders – Tenth of December (Bloomsbury)
Saunders is a brilliant short story writer, and this collection is among his strongest. The stories here combine dystopian fiction and social satire with contemporary realism, unified by Saunders’s inimitable voice.
2. A.M. Homes – May We Be Forgiven (Allen & Unwin) (Interview)
Winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, May We Be Forgiven is a delightfully weird novel that begins with a murder and goes downhill from there, keeping the reader constantly on edge as it draws together online dating, an experimental outdoor prison, and the discovery of short stories written by Richard Nixon.
3. Julian Barnes – Levels of Life (Random House)
Levels of Life begins with a history of hot air ballooning and ends with a deeply moving meditation on grief: Julian Barnes’s response to the death of his wife. It’s a short, devastating book that manages to explore this difficult subject without sentimentality.
4. Krissy Kneen – Steeplechase (Text Publishing) (Interview)
Krissy Kneen’s previous works have been erotic literature; this novel, her first work of mainstream literature, is still suffused with sensuality. Steeplechase is a dark portrayal of a complicated relationship between two sisters: one a world-famous artist, the other a lesser-known artist living in her sister’s shadow.
5. Eric Stephenson, Nate Bellegarde, Jordie Bellaire – Nowhere Men (Image Comics)
In what was a strong year for graphic novels, Nowhere Men stands out as one of the most original. Set in a world where “science is the new rock’n’roll”, it centres on a secret experiment gone wrong, and the rivalries between the celebrity scientists who seek to control it. It’s an extremely promising start to what should be a fantastic series.
1. Kate Hendrick – The Accident (Text Publishing) (Interview)
Hendrick is an Australian author and this is her debut: a YA novel about three teenagers connected – though they do not know it – by a car crash. The book is a beautifully-written and sophisticated exploration of the butterfly effect, working from before and after the crash. The three main characters are complicated, moving, and distinct. I really loved this book – it blew me away, and I wish it had won an award or something so that more people knew about it!
2. Mitch Benn – Terra (Hachette)
This is a book I read but didn’t get to mention on the show: a very sweet, very funny science fiction fable by British comedian and songwriter Mitch Benn. It is about a girl rescued (it was an accident) as a baby by an alien biologist, and brought up on another planet. Terra is about to start school. She is the alien. She begins to change her world. The story is gorgeous, and there’s a beautiful dedication from the author that had me in love from before the first word.
3. Kate Griffin – A Madness of Angels (Hachette)
I read this book outside of my reading for Book Club, and it has been around for a couple of years (the series has four books now), so technically it shouldn’t be on this list but I enjoyed it so much I decided to include it anyway. A Madness of Angels is an urban fantasy in which sorcerers draw their magic from the city streets, and there are angels in the telephone wires. One sorcerer, Matthew Swift was dead – killed by a shadow – but finds himself alive. The beginning is very slow, but once the action picks up (wait for the garbage troll) it’s well worth the wait.
4. Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being (Text Publishing) (Interview)
Nao is a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl writing a diary before she kills herself. Some time later, after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011, a writer, Ruth (a version of the author), discovers the diary washed up on the Pacific coast of Canada. The book draws on a huge and complicated range of subjects – Zen Buddhism and quantum mechanics, Japanese suicide trends, the reader-writer relationship – but Ozeki weaves them together elegantly and with humour. A book that deserves to be re-read.
5. Kate Atkinson – Life After Life (Random House)
Atkinson’s tale of a woman living and reliving through the major events of the early twentieth century (World War I, World War II) makes my Top 5 list with reservations. On one hand, it is an incredible piece of historical fiction. On the other (as we discussed at length during our feature), the book’s structure lets it down and prevents it from satisfactorily fulfilling its conceit. On reflection, I couldn’t overlook the author’s beautiful and heart-wrenching depictions of the Blitz.