21 book reviewers' top reads of 2014

04 December 2014 - 11:41 By Sunday Times Lifestyle Magazine
'The Three' by Sarah Lotz was on four of our reviewers' lists making it a must-read.
'The Three' by Sarah Lotz was on four of our reviewers' lists making it a must-read.

This year saw the shelves groaning with great reads. Here's the Sunday Times book review team's pick of the best


  • Sarah Lotz's The Threezips along as you cringe, wince and wonder whether anyone in the narrative can be trusted.
  • I've been telling any teen who'll listen that they must get their hands on Edyth Bulbring's The Mark(Tafelberg, R160).
  • If I were pushed to name only one book for 2014, I'd have to confess my love for Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor's Dust. This line is unforgettable: "This is how we lose the country, one child at a time."


  • The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (Little Brown, R285). Parents as well as children dreaded the end of the Harry Potter epic, so the reincarnation of JK Rowling as Robert Galbraith is excellent news. The second in her series featuring war hero-turned-detective Cormoran Strike is great fun.


  • In a year of great fiction, Lauren Beukes's Broken Monsters (Umuzi, R200) and Nadia Davids's An Imperfect Blessing (Umuzi, R240) stand out. The former is Beukes's best novel yet - it puts her in Stephen King territory - and the latter marks an exceptionally strong debut. J
  • Justin Cartwright's Lion Heart (Bloomsbury, R255), meanwhile, evokes the many ages of Jerusalem and gets away with a plot twist that shouldn't be allowed in literary fiction.


  • Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser (Jonathan Ball Publishers, R230) is a brilliant exploration of personal and political awakening refracted through a maddening, exhilarating, singular city
  • The Alibi Club by Jaco van Schalkwyk (Umuzi, R200) introduces a blinding new talent, a visual artist who sculpts and distils language into acute, atmospheric prose.


  • Simon Rich's short story collection Spoiled Brats(Profile Books, R210) is satirical and surreal and one of this year's funniest books. Its only rival is BJ Novak's collection One More Thing (Little Brown, R270), which is as wry and witty but not quite as LOL.
  • Mike Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts (Little Brown, R265) is a surprisingly original and refreshing take on the tired post-apocalyptic zombie novel.


  • Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer (Random House, R210) stands out for me because of its honesty and intimacy about a dreadful disease.
  • Sister Moon by Kirsten Miller (Umuzi, R190) unravels a familiar theme in flashes of uncertain memories, which creates suspense and a deep sense of dread. It's sad, dark and represents the silent voices of many.


  • Stephen Clarke's Dirty Bertie: An English King Made in France (Random House, R285) takes you back into the dying days of grim Victorianism and Edwardian optimism and gives you the skinny on the portly figures of the 19th century.
  • Few books scream for a screenplay like The Trigger by Tim Butcher (Chatto & Windus, R315) - a great look into Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28 1914.


  • Damon Galgut's Arctic Summer(Umuzi, R180) is a delicious and nuanced (fictionalised) rendering of EM Forster's personal life and the events that were the catalyst for Passage to India.
  • The First Rule of Survivalby Paul Mendelson (Quercus, R280) is an astonishingly well-plotted debut thriller set in the Cape Winelands.
  • WithTales of the Metric System (Umuzi, R250), Imraan Coovadia takes a wryly cynical dig at the (d)evolution of once-noble freedom fighters into kleptocracy, denialism and disillusion.


  • Divided Lives by Lyndall Gordon (Little Brown, R310) is an insightful book about a mother and daughter relationship. What I loved best is that we grew up in Cape Town at the same time but on different sides of the mountain. Her side seems more exciting than mine.
  • False River by Dominique Botha (Umuzi, R230) is funny, sad and lyrical - better in Afrikaans than English.


  • Weeping Waters by Karin Brynard (Penguin R235), translated from the Afrikaans bestseller Plaasmoord, is brimming with authenticity. A lucent tale of farm murder and rural society in the vice of social pressures, with the translation beautifully done by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon.


  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Profile Books, R290) is an unusual story that will surprise the reader. It deals with issues around family, animal rights, guilt and memory.
  • An Imperfect Blessing by Nadia Davids is both an intimate novel about family and a novel of SA's history and politics. Her sharp eye and a light touch make for a rich and satisfying read.
  • Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser is an intimate exploration of the city and of the author himself. As a child, he was obsessed with maps, and this is a tale of boundaries, transgressions and discoveries, told by a master of the craft.


  • Dave Eggers's The Circle(Penguin, R190) tackles issues of privacy in the age of easy proliferation of information, virtual sharing and social media.
  • In The Three, Sarah Lotz sustains the tension right to the end.


  • The Three by Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton, R285). The children at the centre of this rich and intelligent story are truly horrifying because they, and all the people and places in this book, feel so real. Planes can (and do) fall out of the sky but I hope that children like these stay firmly locked in Lotz's imagination.
  • Love Tastes Like Strawberriesby Rosamund Haden (Kwela Books, R195) is a meditation on love in its many forms - passionate, complicated, unrequited, enduring, inconvenient and stifling.
  • Dark Whispers by Joanne Macgregor (Protea Bookhouse, R195) is the stuff nightmares are made of: a gynaecologist torturing his patients with no ramifications.


  • Paul Morris's Back to Angola(Zebra Press, R220); Vernon RL Head's The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World (Jacana, R225), and Dominique Botha's False River all tell us something different about who we are today and how we got here. Beautiful, elegiac prose - these three SA authors touch the heart of our constantly shifting identities, of sadness, memory and hope, of our place in nature, family and history.



  • Young South African novelists grabbed me strongly this year - Thando Mgqolozana and Masande Ntshanga in particular. Unimportance(Jacana, R150) and The Reactive (Umuzi, R150) are a pair of lithe and heady autre-Bildungsromans, darkly funny, efficiently poetic and, ultimately, horribly troubling.



  • A Colder War by Charles Cumming (St Martin's Press, R330) shows just how the spy novel can still grab you and not let go until the last page.
  • Crossing the Line: When Cops Become Criminals by Lisa Grobler (Jacana, R195) and Justice Deniedby David Klatzow (Zebra Press, R180) both offer insightful and sobering views of South Africa's police and judicial systems.



  • I was swept away by Håkan Nesser's The Strangler's Honeymoon (Pan Macmillan, R250) which is as gruesome, tense and droll as its title.
  • Yuval Harari's Sapiens (Harvill Secker, R285) is a witty and illuminating history of the human race from the first amoebae to 2014.



  • The Three by Sarah Lotz is my favourite book of 2014, by one of South Africa's brightest stars.
  • Devilskein & Dearloveby Alex Smith (Umuzi, R180) is a gorgeously detailed fantasy and an instant classic
  • The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey is a must-read horror - it's fast-paced, edge of the seat scary, and features zombies like you've never seen them before.



  • The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Sceptre, R165) is superficially about the horror of a single incident during the Iraq war, but it's much more, calling to mind some of the finest of all war writing.
  • & Sons by David Gilbert (Fourth Estate, R175) is a multi-layered, sharp, funny and intellectually profound story of two New York families.



  • Who wouldn't want to read the story of a woman who went from a shoplifter to the CEO of a $100-million company in a few short years? Sophia Amoruso's #GIRLBOSS(Penguin, R320) is a must-read memoir/how-to book: it's hilarious, smart and sharp, and filled with gems of advice. A manual in the art of kicking ass.



  • David Mitchell is one of my pet authors, and although The Bone Clocks (Sceptre, R285) didn't blow me away, it's still my book of the year. Partly because of Mitchell's unrivalled ability to spin a good yarn, and partly because of the nerdy satisfaction that comes from recognising recurring characters and thematic Mitchellisms. And partly because I got a signed copy.