RNZ Best Books 2013

Kate De Goldi and Laura Kroetsch talk about books in 2013.

Children’s literature mirrored adult fiction this year: lots of well-written historical fiction. This is possibly because in some ways it’s a little bit easier for a writer of children. There’s a lot of paraphernalia we don’t have to deal with, so heightens the setting in some ways.

Mateship With Birds by Carrie Tiffany

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

A great American novel about a young woman coming-of-age. You become completely lost in it. There’s a lot of story going on. It can’t have been drawn from her own experience.

King Of The Badgers by Philip Hensher

There are big themes in this author’s books. There’s lots of graphic gay sex. This is a tribute to a big, sprawling nineteenth century novel. The Line Of Beauty are similar, and can be read as companion pieces. This is the darkest story about a Dorset town and the central incident is about a kid who is being kidnapped but it’s really about privacy and loss of privacy and surveillance.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

A young man falls very deeply in love on the eve of the second world war. He survives the war and goes back and goes back and leads an unsatisfied life. The protagonist isn’t a very empathetic character but is interesting because it asks what it means to be Australian. The protagonist is forced by conditions to do the best he can, but completely rejects the idea he is a hero. These men steal from each other as they lie starving in the filth and the mud. Australian soldiers had a very high rate of desertion. We also get a story about the Japanese who are flawed but who are human. It’s a fantastic novel and so many people say all school children should be reading it. (Perhaps it’s for older readers, however.) Flanagan’s father served in this war. The father died the day he finished the novel. It’s getting fantastic reviews. It may make you cry at the end.

A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge

Incidentally, Kitty Aldridge is married to Mark Knopfler. This is darkly funny, about a young man who works in a funeral parlour. It’s about him being strong for his family. The voice of the narrator is a remarkable achievement — an amalgam of late teenage bravado, borrowed cliches and a sort of bullish joyousness of a salesman dealing with the dead. At the same time there is an honoring of the corpses and the dead. Aldridge writes scenes of parts other novelists leave out. The same is true of another of her books Pop, about someone learning to read. Cryer’s Hill is about a housing estate about the underbelly of suburban life. There’s a sweetness at the heart of her texts.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Every year of her life, the protagonist makes a decision to translate a book from French into Arabic. This is a love song to literature. In this way, the protagonist makes her life complete. She is divorced and childless so has no place in society. She is ornery but sympathetic at the same time. You get the notion that you can be redeemed by literature.

 The Night Guest, the first book from Fiona McFarlane, is another story also about a 70 something year old woman who lives in almost complete isolation. One day a mysterious woman comes from the department of social services to help her. She thinks there’s a tiger in the house at night. She is slowly losing her mind. The novel is really about trust: why is this woman here and why is she helping her? McFarlane is only young herself but writes incredibly poignantly about the fears of growing old. It’s creepy, and rings incredibly true. She writes about anxiety incredibly well.

The Innocents by Francesca Segal

This is a riff on The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton. The author has shifted the story to the orthodox Jewish community in London. What happens when we decide we love somebody enough to marry them, and what happens if something interrupts this? It sounds like chick-lit, just describing the plot. It’s a really fond but clear-eyed investigation of that quite closed society and some of its warm and attractive attributes and the less so. At no time does it become a Mills and Boon. The girl about to be married is not an attractive character.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

The perfect summer read slightly reminiscent of Richard Ford.

Philip Kerr uses genre to explore a very big issue. Kerr was named one of the great British novelists twenty years ago. This author asks you to ask about the ordinary German caught up in the horror of the Third Reich.

Crime writers say that as a genre it’s all encompassing. You can fit everything into it, introducing any idea to people. All the way through the series lovers keep disappearing and you expect them to come back, but they never do. This is a perfect analogue for what is happening on a massive scale. To be skeptical, he can just ditch them and bring in a new one. But that’s not what he’s doing. It haunts the reader, utterly excoriating. Moral ambiguity is a very good thing to write about. What you ask yourself the whole time is, ‘What would I have done?’

In Australia, writing about Tasmania is a way for Australian fiction to explore the past. Moral ambiguity is not a conversation we’re willing to have, but we do explore it in fiction. Reading Henry Reynolds this year is undoing quite an extraordinary point.

The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg


Laura van den Berg’s collection of short stories are all about women mired in secrecy, trying to get simpler lives. Again these stories are about moral ambiguity, and also how do I get a normal life and what does a normal life mean?

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

A riff on Lolita. A first novel that has won a swag of prizes. It’s narrated by a failed middle-aged man. The young girl he picks up is not a coquettish tease as Lolita is portrayed. She’s shabby, almost grubby. The startling thing about the book is how swiftly you are pulled into his world view. This is a slow abuse, brilliantly managing to make the reader believe in the narrator. This may make you feel odd for days after reading it, because of some queasy eroticised scenes.

Lydia Millet has written a trilogy, the first of which is called How The Dead Dream.

It’s about a middle aged man who in the beginning is only known as T. His mother is slowly losing her mind. There is something deeply flawed about all T’s decisions but the reader is enormously sympathetic towards him. This is a fascinating writer who makes you feel really uneasy.

Olivier Laing The Trip To Echo Spring

There is an enormously high prevalence of alcoholic writers, but either that’s not the case anymore or we just don’t talk about it as much. Now the stories we tell are stories of recovery. Only Carver quit. All the rest never made it. Drinking is now less socially accepted. What has changed? Is it Prozac? And what do we expect of the creative process? This is a really interesting book about American alcoholic writers, and includes their letters which show their demise. Hemingway does not come off well in this.

Steve Tesich Karoo


This is so funny — the same kind of guy as the writers described in the book above. It’s ghastly and funny and is about his loathing for what he’s doing in Hollywood. Tim Hellenen’s The Junior Vendor series is another one similar.

Running For Your Life by Michelle Orange

This author has been compared to Didion. She’s very young and writes sort of personal, sort of journalism. What happens in a world that is constantly being mediated by pictures? She’s a critic of film and a journalist, but the essays range. There’s a terrific one about Marilyn Monroe and nostalgia. She’s very funny and critical about the little itty-bitty women we create in film. She takes a harrowing trip to Beirut and poignantly moving trip to a retirement home in Canada. She is fascinated by technology. This book makes you aware of how we live with images. When we were children we looked at text — it bears no resemblance.

The Lost Art Of Handwriting by Philip Hensher

Slightly overblown — a good idea which didn’t need to become an entire book. But the essay on the search for the perfect fountain pen is truly hilarious.

Walking Home by Simon Armitage

About the lost art of letter writing.