Stories I couldn't put down

Book editor Nicky Pellegrino chooses her favourite reads of the year.

Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life' was a surprising standout.
Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life' was a surprising standout.

It's been a year of highs and lows in the book world. As local publishers and bookshops fought for survival, a Kiwi scooped the world's most famous literary prize, the Man Booker, with a novel that followed the current trend for hefty great epics.

Elsewhere, writers who publish sparingly made an appearance, new life was breathed into old franchises and fresh talents emerged. But what were the best books, the thought provokers, the stories that were impossible to put down, the novels we raved about, the ones that will stay in our memories and on our book shelves because some day we'll want to return to them?

I've read only 50 or so of the many novels published this year, but these are my stand-outs. If I were forced to pick a number one, I guess it would be Kate Atkinson's because her book is so well executed, evocative and clever. But all of the following books are a pleasure to spend time with. Ultimately it's not winning literary prizes that is the sign of a good novel. It's that feeling you get when you find yourself still turning pages way past your bedtime, When you're gripped until the very end then desolate to have finished.

This year, these were the titles that did that for me.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

The plot didn't sound promising. I thought I'd be irritated by a character who gets to live events in her life over again, with them ending in disaster or not depending on the choices made. But this boldly written, multi-layered story is a triumph.

Ursula Todd is born on a winter's night in 1910. The chord is wrapped round her neck, the doctor is stuck in snow and she dies without drawing a single breath. But if the doctor sets out a little earlier and gets through in time to save Ursula then she survives to enjoy an idyllic childhood in a rambling old house. And so it continues as she succumbs to or avoids disaster through adolescence, a Spanish flu epidemic and wars. This is an unsettling novel about how a person's fate can turn on the slightest of decisions and the smallest of events. It's compelling to begin each new telling of her story wondering if darkness will fall or if she will make it through.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (VUP)

While reading this novel I felt as if 19th-century Hokitika was a place I had visited and was about to go back to. This is a gripping piece of historical fiction. It opens in the smoking room of a hotel where new arrival Charles Moody finds 12 men gathered. All are linked in some way to the events of a recent night when a local hermit died, a wealthy prospector disappeared, an opium-addicted prostitute attempted suicide and a fortune in gold was discovered.

Catton manages to bring to life an era and a large cast of characters, many of whom are hiding secrets or are not quite what they seem. Although it sprawls over more than 800 pages, her prose is taut and her structure sturdy. This is a big, glorious story of shipwrecks and swindlers, secrets caches of treasure, fate and fortune, greed, hope and desperation. It was worth straining my thumb while propping it open to read. Now, like pretty much everyone else, I'm wondering what on earth Catton will do to follow it up.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little Brown)

US author Donna Tartt produces only a book a decade and this, her latest, has a dramatic opening that's guaranteed to hook in readers. New York teenager Theodore Decker has been caught smoking in school so he and his mother are called in for a conference. On the way, they stop at The Metropolitan Museum Of Art and, while there, his mother is killed in a shocking incident. Theo blames himself as he struggles through a life that takes him to the extremes of society - from a wealthy Park Ave family to the gamblers of Las Vegas. All the while he has in his possession a priceless Dutch painting taken from the museum that he treasures, despite the danger it puts him in.

I was slightly bogged down in the lengthy Las Vegas section, and the ending I found a bit pretentious but this is a vivid coming-of-age story .

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Text)

This novel is hilarious as well as thoughtful and original. Professor Don Tillman is a lonely geneticist who is looking for love. He embarks on "The Wife Project" scarily systematically, creating a 16-page questionnaire designed to help him find the perfect, punctual, non-smoking, non horoscope-reading woman. Feisty Rosie Jarman is the opposite of what he's seeking, nevertheless Don finds himself oddly attracted to her and is side-tracked by her search for her biological father. Rosie wreaks havoc; forcing him to break out of the routines he lives by, involving him in crazy schemes and even helping him discover his sense of humour. Kiwi-born author Simsion never expressly tells us his character has Asperger's syndrome, but that is clearly the case. And although it may seem politically incorrect to joke about "Aspies", this warm, big-hearted bestseller pulls it off.

The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett (Text)

I have a particular fondness for books about books but this literary mystery will appeal also to lovers of historical fiction, romances and possibly even thrillers. Shy antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerley is living a lonely life in a cottage in Wales after the death of his wife. He comes across an 18th-century book on Shakespeare forgeries and discovers slipped between its pages a watercolour portrait of a woman with the face of his late wife. Shocked and intrigued, Peter decides to solve the mystery of who she was. His growing obsession takes him deep into the worlds of Victorian art and literature, of forgeries and scoundrels, of the debate about who really penned Shakespeare's works, and even of murder.

A neatly woven story that moves between 16th-century London and Peter's student years in North Carolina, with twists, turns and skulduggery along the way. I loved this pacey, quirky read.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (HarperCollins)

At one point in this book, the author has a character declare that you can't write an honest novel about race in America. Adichie's powerful and uncompromising piece of fiction appears to be her way of proving this is not the case. Although it can be an uncomfortable read, this story about the immigrant experience is brave, outspoken and truthful. It opens in a rundown African braiding salon where Princeton fellow Ifemelu is having her hair done before returning to Nigeria after 15 years of living in America. Then we're taken back to Ifemelu's teenage years, when she falls for a boy called Obinze and also for American culture. Their love story and their separate struggles as new immigrants in different countries form the backbone of a book that examines the discomfort surrounding race and the confusion around identity that immigrants face.

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Text)

It was worth the brain stretch required to appreciate her writing fully. This fascinating book plays with reality and is filled with philosophical ideas, science and life lessons.

Author Ruth Ozeki lives on a remote island in British Columbia. One day on the beach she picks up a plastic freezer bag and finds among its contents the diary of a Japanese teenage girl, Nao Yasutani, that she presumes has been swept on to their shores in the drift from the 2011 tsunami. Ruth begins to read the journal, learning how Nao has decided to kill herself once she has recorded the story of her life and that of her great-grandmother Jiko. An often amusing and sometimes heartbreaking novel about people who long for other lives in other places and feel out of step with those around them. It's clever on many levels but also immensely readable.

- Herald on Sunday

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