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Sunday Times Books of the Year

From a Mumbai slum to war-time Prague, from Excalibur to Boer battlefields, the Sunday Times Books team and its contributors pick their best books of 2013

Flat Water TuesdayThe Blacks of Cape TownIn the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead

Ben Williams – Books Editor
From the present: Ron Irwin’s Flat Water Tuesday and CA Davids’ The Blacks of Cape Town, while not flawless, are local gems that perform the magic trick of becoming literary conversation pieces. From the past: James Lee Burke’s crime novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993) takes you swimming through waters murky and brackish as our own. From the future: the Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa app (iTunes), featuring birdsong with which you can call a splendid array of feathered friends to your stoep.

The Spiral House My Children Have FacesWe Need New Names

Michele Magwood
With The Spiral House Claire Robertson has lifted the bar of South African literature with one stroke. An unsettling, unforgettable work. Carol Campbell’s My Children Have Faces beckons the hidden karretjie people to centrestage in her compelling debut, while NoViolet Bulawayo introduces the tyke Darling, owner of one of the most original voices in years, in We Need New Names.

Gone GirlJoylandDoctor Sleep

Jennifer Platt
I was very late to pick up Gone Girl, but as soon as I did I couldn’t wait to find out the mystery behind Nick Dunn and his missing wife Amy. Gillian Flynn conjures unbelievable-believable characters and deploys tricky devices that sent me jumping sideways to conclusions. I couldn’t decide between Stephen King’s Joyland or Doctor Sleep, but in the end Joyland‘s mixed-genre chemistry won.

The HereticsHHhHThe New York Trilogy

Sophy Kohler
Will Storr forces you to suspend your beliefs in The Heretics, showing you a cast of characters from across the bipolar worlds of science and mysticism, all of whom appear convincing and compelling and yet all of whom cannot be right. Laurent Binet’s genius debut HHhH is a brilliant consideration of the fiction that inevitably belies historical accounts. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster is a set of cleverly interlinked spy stories, or anti-spy stories, that seem to simultaneously poke fun at and celebrate the classic genre.

Of Cops and RobbersLast Winter of Dani LancingLight of the World

William Saunderson-Meyer
Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nicol features a surfer dude hero, his gorgeous poker-addict sidekick, apartheid era operatives and government orchestrated rhino horn deals. In short, South African surrealism with a garrotte. PD Viner’s searing debut novel The Last Winter of Dani Lancing shows how the violent death of a daughter seeds hurt, anger, bitterness and ineffable sadness. But James Lee Burke’s lyrical and terrifying Light of the World is hands down my book of the year.

Way Back HomeWhere'd You Go, Bernadette?Vortex

Bontle Senne
Way Back Home by Niq Mhlongo kept me guessing, left me a little chilled and made me so excited to read whatever he writes next. I devoured Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette, which charts the walk between creativity and mental illness, in one sitting. Vortex is the second installment of the Tempest trilogy by Julie Cross and reminded me why I love Young Adult fiction.

Almost EnglishThe New GirlThe Cuckoo's Calling

Sally Partridge
Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English introduces Marina, who longs for a new life and decides to reinvent herself at a posh English boarding school. A bounty of delightful characters and complicated family relationships. There’s nothing more frightening than horror on home turf, and the SA writing duo SL Grey have outdone themselves with The New Girl, in which agents of the Downside recruit children for their nefarious purposes. I love unwinding with a good whodunnit, and The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling is a satisfying tale of murder and intrigue.

The Coat RouteOut of the MountainsThe Golden Egg

Bron Sibree
Journalist Meg Lukens Noonan traverses the globe on the trail of a $50 000 coat in The Coat Route. A tale of obsession, luxury and craftsmanship, and a sober look at the human story behind China’s burgeoning economic might. Out of the Mountains: the Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla by David Kilcullen brings new thinking to age-old problems. Donna Leon’s The Golden Egg touches on the current Italo-European malaise and transcends the confines of the crime genre with provocative thematic concerns such as the nature of language and socialisation.

For the Mercy of WaterThe Goldfinch

Diane Awerbuck
Karen Jayes’ powerful, challenging For the Mercy of Water thoroughly deserves all the prizes it has been garnering. Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep made me feel as terrified and exultant as I did when I read The Shining all those years ago. I’m still reading the piercing, graceful, awkward The Goldfinch. It’s really hard to write youth well; Donna Tartt gets it just right.

ExcaliburThe Mind's Eye

David Pike
Excalibur is the third in a trilogy. Few historical novelists can beat Bernard Cornwell for plunging readers right into his chosen period, or for vivid, fascinating characters and nerve-shattering battle descriptions. I also hugely enjoyed The Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser. At the top of Scandinavian crime-fiction, Nesser’s novels are by turns stomach-churning, grippingly interesting, and (surprisingly) very funny.

Ghana Must GoAlif the UnseenBehind the Beautiful Forevers

Luso Mnthali
In Ghana Must Go Taiye Selasi takes you into the heart of one Ghanaian family and their fragmented experiences as immigrants in the United States. Selasi rarely falters. G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen combines an understanding of new technologies and ancient story-telling techniques in which fantasy and realism don’t clash but meld. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is an incredible, transforming book in which Mumbai slum residents are given a chance to tell their own stories.

The Shining GirlsFar from the tree

Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. I found the time travel aspect intricate and masterfully crafted, the subject matter haunting and the characterization of both the serial killer Harper and the only-surviving victim, Kirby, completely absorbing. Raising a daughter with dwarfism made Far From The Tree required reading for me. Andrew Solomon is an original storyteller and shares the edifying stories of parents who “have not only learned to deal with their exceptional children but who also find meaning in doing so”.

Telegraph AvenueBilly Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Steven Sidley
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon uses language in a way no-one else does. Reading him is like watching a master high-wire acrobat perform a triple somersault without a net. Laurent Binet’s HHhH is genre-bending narrative non-fiction, a story of the worst of Nazism and of true heroism. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an exuberant tlae of a soldier anti-hero, abashedly and humorously told by Ben Fountain.

Big BrotherThe Gallery of Vanished HusbandsThe Son

Zoe Hinis
In Big Brother Lionel Shriver wields a scalpel as she dissects the Western obsession with weight, why we overeat, and how we view the fat and the thin. The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons stars Juliet, who becomes invisible within her conservative Jewish community when her husband leaves her. On her 30th birthday, she makes a decision that will change her life. The Son by Michel Rostain is a book that transcends death by celebrating life. The most profoundly uplifting book of 2013.

The Burgess BoysThe Round House

Edyth Bulbring
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Stout writes in an extraordinary way about ordinary people doing the most mundane things in The Burgess Boys. Louise Erdich’s The Round House is a compelling, beautifully written story that echoes the genius of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

The Unauthorised History of South AfricaField Guide to the Battlefields of South AfricaGeology off the Beaten Track

Shaun Phillips
The Unauthorised History of South Africa by Dr Stienie Dikderm and Prof Herodotus Hlope is a riotously funny parody of South African history, reminiscent of Tom Sharpe. Nicki von der Heyde’s Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa is a beautiful collection of pictures, maps and timelines, while Geology Off the Beaten Track by Nick Norman brings our wonderful geological heritage to life again after billions of years.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time IndianThe Sacred Book of the WerewolfLord of Misrule

Jacqui L’Ange
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, is a black-humour YA Bildungsroman which should be a set work in South African schools, with much to offer young minds grappling with the aftermath of institutionalised racism. Victor Pelevin’s The Sacred Book of the Werewolf is sheer wizardry, a blend of myth and social history – not to mention sex and surrealism – in modern-day Moscow. Lord of Misrule won the won the US National Book Award in 2011. It’s a story of last-chancers and the horses they stake everything on, set in West Virginia.

And the Mountains EchoedMaddaddamEndings and Beginnings

Nikki Temkin
I was sad when And the Mountains Echoed ended – Khaled Husseini’s latest novel follows the intersecting, poignant stories of certain Afghan families and their struggles through the years. He’s a master storyteller. Margaret Atwood continues her dystopian sci-fi series with Maddaddam, after a plague has wiped out the human race. Her mind is incredible. Redi Tlhabi’s Endings and Beginnings was well deserving of the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award, a brave and personal insight into what it’s like to grow up on township streets.

Survival Training for Lonely Hearts

Terry Shakinovsky
Prauge-set HHhH is the book that has stayed with me this year. I could hardly breathe for the tension. Elana Bregin’s Survival Training for Lonely Hearts made me laugh and cry but most of all it made me glad to be South African. Kate Wolf, a single, forty-something editor living in Durban takes the plunge into internet dating. What follows is hilarious and touching.

The Supremes at Earl�s All-You-Can-Eat10 Things I've Learnt About Love

Kelly Ansara
Reading The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eatby Edward Kelsey Moore you’ll have to resist the urge to yell loudly in coffee shops “This book is brilliant!” I also clung to Sarah Butler’s 10 Things I’ve Learnt About Love like it was the life force of my literary mind. Two Brothers is a sweeping, turbulent saga: the division and violence between Jews and Germans are not the only hiccup Ben Elton splatters on the page.

WonderAnd the Ass Saw the Angel

Donnay Torr
Wonder by RJ Palacio is one of the most beautiful, brave and touching YA novels I’ve ever read, about a physically malformed boy who has to finally face the terrors of school. Nick Cave’s writing is simply magical and utterly bizarre: And the Ass Saw the Angel is not an easy read, but well worth it if you’re into creepy. Lauren Beukes is one of my favourite local authors. The Shining Girls really delivers.

Life After Life

Kate Sidley
Claire Robertson’s The Spiral House is beautifully written. Lovers of history and language will appreciate it. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson plays with the intriguing question of “What would have happened if…”, thrusting the protagonist into different destinies, lives and deaths.

Noluthando Ncube
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo was a poignant reminder of my own childhood beliefs and dreams and at the same time a brutally candid expose of what it means to be a Zimbabwean living outside the country. Robin Hobb’s fantasy The Farseer Trilogy is an awesome work about living a life of integrity and authenticity. I’m not one for “New Age-isms”, but I found Powerful and Feminine by Rachel Jayne Grover to be refreshing and empowering.

The Cat from HueSoloBandiet out of JailBloody Satisfied

Hamilton Wende
The Cat from Hue is a breathtaking personal odyssey by John Laurence, a reporter in the Vietnam war. It’s taken him nearly 40 years to write and settle the demons he carried out of that conflict. Solo is the best Bond book I have read since Casino Royale. The action hums along, the women are sexy and William Boyd’s portrayal of African conflict is spot on. Two great SA books I read this year were Hugh Lewin’s searing Bandiet and Bloody Satisfied, a collection of crime stories edited by Joanne Hichens.

Book details

eBook options – Download now!

eBook options – Download now!

  • Bloody Satisfied by Nechama Brodie, Peter Church, Anthony Ehlers, Luke Fiske, Megan Furniss, Dawn Garisch, Amy Heydenrych, Beth Hunt, Liam Kruger, Greg Lazarus, Siphiwo Mahala, Sandile Memela, Peter Merrington, T.O. Molefe, Jill Morsbach, Chris Nicholson, Yewande Omotoso, Andrew Salomon, Melissa Siebert, Anirood Singh, Roger Smith, Jo Stielau, Mncedise Thambe, Colin Ward, edited by Joanne Hichens
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    EAN: 9780987043733
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