Middle-brow fiction, Hera Lindsay Bird, literary fiction, and studies of loneliness, death, and Flying Nun feature among the biggest-selling books of the year at the best bookstore in Auckland.
1 All the Light We Cannot See (Fourth Estate, $25) by Anthony Doerr
So there you have it: the most popular book of the year is a novel which is too readable and too sentimental to qualify as literary fiction, but neither is it trash. It’s just really, really good. “Boy meets girl in Anthony Doerr’s hauntingly beautiful book. The heroine Marie-Laure is blind…Much of the story unfolds during World War II, although it jumps back and forth. The book opens in August 1944, two months after D-Day, with the sound of things falling from the sky and rattling against windows. Marie-Laure knows these are leaflets. She can smell the fresh ink…She is in the walled Breton city of Saint-Malo. Five streets away from the house to which Marie-Laure and her father have fled, a young German soldier named Werner Pfennig is trapped in the ruins of a grand hotel…A small thank you to Mr Doerr for deliberately giving this intricate book an extremely readable format, with very short chapters, many about a page and a half long”: The New York Times.
2 A Little Life (Picador, $25) by Hanya Yanagihara
The epic novel of 2015 just kept selling and selling and selling in 2016. In an exclusive interview with Kiran Dass at the Spinoff Review of Books, the author said, “I wanted it to feel unsettling and play a trick on the reader. Not in a manipulative way but more like a magician…It becomes darker and then it moves along and it gets darker and darker still.”
3 Hera Lindsay Bird (Victoria University Press, $25) by Hera Lindsay Bird
The New Zealand literary sensation of 2016. Teenagers, the elderly, couriers, lawyers, midwives, students, stoners, Catholics, yoga instructors and cabinet ministers have read her book. You’ve read her book, probably. As she said in her interview with the Spinoff, “I love it when people who don’t usually like poetry like my poetry. It’s a mean joke, like tricking someone into joining an improv troupe. But it’s cool that so many people are reading all my bad thoughts. I love attention. I absolutely write with other people in mind.”
4 My Brilliant Friend (Text Publishing, $30) by Elena Ferrante
Is the nom de plumed Elena Ferrante, literature’s Banksy, the most captivating genius of fiction in the world right now? My Brilliant Friend – the 2012 novel which forms the first of her Neapolitan quartet about the lives of Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullois – is Exhibit A.
5 Being Mortal (Profile Books, $25) by Atul Gawande
The most popular non-fiction book of the year; it’s serious and intimate, and it deals with matters of life and death, mostly death. “Like everyone else, we will die, and probably after a long period of decline and debility…Gawande wants us to know that the tragedy of old age and death cannot be fixed by modern medicine, so we better find some other way to deal with it. He divides his book into eight beautifully written chapters that follow the trajectory from independence to death”: The New York Review of Books.
6 The Lonely City (Canongate, $40) by Olivia Laing
Perhaps the author was overly reticent in talking about herself in this acclaimed book; in an age of the grief memoir, she kept her heart off her sleeve, and let her subject do the work. “Olivia Laing’s new book is at once an investigation into works of art that arise out of the condition of loneliness, and the record of a more personal quest to master the difficult ‘art of being alone’. The setting is (mostly) New York, where Laing recently experienced a spell of acute loneliness after the relationship that had brought her there from Britain abruptly ended. In her involuntary solitude she..began immersing herself in artists whose work seemed ‘troubled by loneliness’”: The Guardian.
7 I Am Pilgrim (Transworld, $25) by Terry Hayes
I am what? This thriller slipped under the radar, despite obviously selling in droves at Unity. Publisher’s blurbology: “In New York, the body of a woman is found facedown in a bath of acid, her features have been ripped from her face, her teeth are missing, her fingerprints gone. The rooms has been sprayed with DNA-eradicting spray. Someone has seemingly committed the perfect crime…An unusual and challenging murder investigation leads NYPD detective Ben Bradley into a direct collision course with the dark forces of jihadist terrorism.” Jesus!
8 The Sympathizer (Piakus Books, $28) by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Nguyen’s novel remained in the best-seller chart at both Unity stories for much of the year; readers obviously responded to the story told by a Communist double agent, a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the fall of Saigon, and builds a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in LA. “Surely a new classic of war fiction…I haven’t read anything since Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that illustrates so palpably how a patient tyrant, unmoored from all human constraint, can reduce a man’s mind to liquid”: Washington Post.
9 In Love with These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records (HarperCollins, $37) by Roger Shepherd
One of the best-ever New Zealand rock’n’roll memoirs. “In Love With These Times is the sort of book you crack the spine on, flick on the kettle and then somehow find the time to read right through, or close to it. So much of that wonderful music spinning in my head as the words told a story I’d previously only been able to imagine. Roger’s book takes you right there. To the place – not just Dunedin and Christchurch (and then Auckland) – where so much of that great music was made:” Simon Sweetman.
10 The Invisible Mile (Victoria University Press, $30) by David Coventry
WTF! A debut novel by a complete nobody in Wellington, and it’s about some bike race, and it was savaged by Mark Reason in New Zealand Books – and yet here it is, in the best-selling list for 2016 at Unity books in Auckland. Huzzah! People obviously dug it. “If David Coventry’s vivid debut novel were only about the sport of cycling, it would be one of the most gruelling novels about a sport ever written in New Zealand. But it’s quite a bit more than this. In 1928, the first-ever English-speaking team competed in the Tour de France; they were three Australians and one New Zealander. To this (historical) team, Coventry adds a (fictitious) fifth member, the novel’s first-person narrator, a bloke from Taranaki…A truly extraordinary first novel”: The Listener.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.