Drumroll: The year's best and worst reads.
There's been an amazing crop of books come through this year, particularly in the field of poetry. I've managed to cover most of my favourites in this column - Sarah Broom's poetry collection Gleam and Elizabeth Knox's latest novel Wake stand out as the best - but I thought I'd round the year off by mentioning some of the best extras that didn't make it into full reviews of their own.
I've also included some of the worst books to cross my path this year. Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton published an excellent essay on elitism and the psychology of negative reviews through Metro this week, saying most one-star reviews on websites like Amazon and Goodreads boil down to three key complaints. These are: the book was confusing; the book was boring, or the book was badly written.
She expands further.
"'Confusing', 'boring' and 'bad' are fine complaints, and in many cases may be pertinent complaints, but they are not criticisms. They are three different ways of saying that the work in question failed to evoke any response from the reviewer at all. Far from describing and critiquing a literary encounter - the job of criticism - such "reviews" only make it clear that a literary encounter never took place."
For the most part, I agree with her. Most of the time when I dislike a book, the core problem is that the author is writing for a specific audience which just doesn't include me.
However, I do believe there's such a thing as an objectively flawed book, and I've tried to be as reasonable as I can about those included below.
1) G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen.
I am often suspicious of books calling themselves "urban fantasy". It's a genre which is, unfortunately, much more difficult to pull off than it looks, and it's been tarnished by association with poorly-conceived books aimed at reluctant readers.
Alif the Unseen is the real deal, though. If you've read William Gibson's classic Neuromancer, this bears a passing resemblance, only it's better-written and set in the Middle East.
It effortlessly mixes fantasy elements with meditations on culture, religion and technology, and includes a good splash of action. Brilliant.
2) Graham Joyce, The Tooth Fairy.
Wow, what a ride. The way this book is often designed, it almost looks like it belongs in the Young Adult section, and it even reads that way until about a third of the way in, when the dark, unsettlingly sexual plot kicks in. Despite covering some really heavy subject material, the writing remains upbeat and effervescent. A strange little beast, this one.
3) Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
I know, I know. I'm about five Christmasses too late with this review, and everybody else in the whole world has already read this series and formed their own opinions. I'd just like to say to all the friends and family who told me I should give Larsson a go even if I don't normally like thrillers: you were right.
Charles Burns, Black Hole. I can't, in good conscience, straight-up recommend this graphic novelist in a family newspaper like the Nelson Mail, but if you've got a strong stomach, an inquiring mind and an appreciation for sharp design, then Burns might be your guy.
Summer Wigmore, The Wind City. There were enough rough edges on this 19-year-old Kiwi's debut novel that I didn't feel comfortable covering it in full on this column. However, it's still the most innovative book set in Wellington I've read so far, and jolly good fun if you're into Doctor Who.
Dan Simmons, Flashback.
I've heard a few right-wing people complain about political subplots in fantasy novels, particularly those by former Socialist Workers Party member China Mieville. It's never bothered me, since, if anything, most fiction I come across tends to lean towards the left, but Simmons' dystopic novel gave me a unique insight into how irritating overt political subtexts really can be.
Would you believe this American thriller writer actually blames the Obama administration's introduction of public healthcare for the collapse of his fictional American society? He's also against sustainable energy and immigration of any kind, especially from Mexico, and doesn't believe in global warming.
This book was bizarre, and not in a good way.
Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls.
I wanted to like this book so much. Beukes' sophomore novel, Zoo City, blew my socks off - it's colourful, exciting, well-written and above all, innovative. The Shining Girls seems to have been met with broad critical acclaim as well, but beyond Beukes' wonderful authorial voice, nothing about this book did it for me.
The plot was clunky and confusing, the inner-city Chicago setting was boring, and the too-many characters all seemed to fall just short of being convincing.
It was a disappointment.
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita.
Like Kerouac's On the Road and that bullfighting one by Hemingway, this is one of those classic books that boring men at parties like to talk about to signify their intelligence and worldliness. They've talked about it to me enough that I felt I had to read it, and sure enough, it was a bit of a dud.
There were lots of fun descriptions and an edgy dose of Soviet Russian surrealism, but not much of an attempt at plot or character building.
I couldn't stay interested in it for more than about 10 minutes at a time. Sorry.