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The 100 best books of 2012

Books & Culture editor Guy Somerset & the Listener’s team of reviewers on the year’s top reads.

To find out what the top 50 children's books of 2012 are, click here.



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ANCIENT LIGHT, by John Banville (Viking, $37). Revisiting characters from previous novels Eclipse and Shroud, Ancient Light brims with gorgeous turns of phrase and Banville’s insights glow with a sharp, lacquered edge. Laced with devilish humour and suffused with an aching wistfulness, this novel radiates elegance as well as hilarious touches of the absurd. Banville is not afraid to be ruthless in his chilly surveillance of events, but equally, he has the backbone to deal with emotional heft.

THE BIG MUSIC, by Kirsty Gunn (Faber and Faber, $36.99). Presented as a collection of found papers, appendices, maps and manuscripts, Gunn’s masterly fifth novel is set against the brooding landscape of the Scottish Highlands and seems the culmination of intensive scholarly research. But within this framework is the elegiac tale of bagpiper John Sutherland and his efforts to create a composition weaving in all the people and elements that have defined his life.

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, by Ben Fountain (Canongate, $36.99). A breathtaking display of linguistic virtuosity and an astute analysis of the society that puts America at war, this debut novel is about army grunt Billy Lynn and his squad of soldiers at a Dallas Cowboys match during a post-Iraq victory PR tour of the US. Funny, satirical, poignant and tragic.

BRING UP THE BODIES, by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, $37.99). The spectacular second instalment of Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell is, like its predecessor, Wolf Hall, winner of the Man Booker Prize. It’s clear from the first line we’re in the hands of an expert stylist and storyteller who’s made an audacious imaginative leap. Mantel has written another novel that makes us question what we think we know about the past and its players; another novel to devour and reread.

THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC, by Julia Otsuka (Fig Tree, $37). In 130 dazzling pages, adeptly sustaining the rarely deployed multiple third-person perspective (ie, “we”), Otsuka writes about the thousands of Japanese women who migrated to early 20th-century America, conveying their experience from their passage by ship to demanding existences as manual labourers, farmhands, maids, prostitutes, mothers and wives.

CANADA, by Richard Ford (Bloomsbury, $36.99). Ford’s characterisation, his eloquence and his love of language and detail make Canada a novel of which his aficionados won’t want to miss a word. “First,” it opens, “I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” That’s 380 pages later, and it’s between these two cataclysmic events that the novel is bookended, with 15-year-old narrator Dell spirited away from Montana to Saskatchewan – a bleak environment where Ford’s sinuous prose is at its most luminous.

THE CHEMISTRY OF TEARS, by Peter Carey (Penguin, $30). Exploring the intersections of art, science and madness, The Chemistry of Tears is more intellectually than emotionally engaging but shares with Carey’s best fiction much that’s compelling, including a tremendous curiosity, historical mysteries and a plot that reads both as an adventure story and an elaborate puzzle in its own right.

THE COVE, by Ron Rash (Text, $37). With his strong sense of place, southern Gothic flavour, atmospheric detail and rich language heavily informed by Appalachia, Rash lives up to comparisons to John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. His lack of irony is refreshing and stands out in this postmodern era. The complex plot of The Cove, with a brother and sister living isolated by superstition and circumstances, builds to a dramatic conclusion, but the reader feels creeping doom from the beginning.

THE DAYLIGHT GATE, by Jeanette Winterson (Hammer, $28.99). This licence-taking reimagining of events leading up to the 1612 Lancashire witch trials is as lurid as it is literary, but then Winterson was aware she was writing for the new book imprint of the Hammer house of horror film company. Rape (male and female), genital and other torture (male and female), paedophilia, orgies, grave-robbery … and a walk-on part for William Shakespeare. Winterson writes it broad, but you can’t put it down.

DEATH ON DEMAND, by Paul Thomas (Hodder Moa, $36.99). “Unruly, unorthodox, and profane”: after the 16 years between books, detective Tito Ihaka is a touch older (definitely), a touch wiser (debatably), but still as fascinating and formidable as ever. An unpinned hand grenade of a hero. A dying man’s confession pardons Ihaka from Wairarapa banishment, but his return to Auckland to hunt an anonymous hitman is quickly complicated by murdered witnesses and police politics. Witty dialogue and helter-skelter action: world-class crime set in our own backyard.

DISGRACE, by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Michael Joseph, $37). This follow-up to the excellent Mercy again features traumatised Carl Morck, sole detective in the Copenhagen police’s Department Q cold-case division, here investigating the apparently pointless murder of a brother and sister 20 years ago. Morck comes to suspect the killing was one of a series of attacks carried out by a group of pupils at an expensive boarding school – some of whom are now among Denmark’s richest and nastiest men. Dark, powerful and very good.

THE ELEPHANT KEEPERS’ CHILDREN, by Peter Hoeg (Harvill Secker, $37.99). In a novel completely different from Hoeg’s very popular (and, indeed, very good) Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, 14-year-old Peter and his siblings fear, with good reason, that their parents are plotting a major crime. Very funny, in a wonderfully whimsical yet deadpan way, the novel somehow combines an intricate and surprising plot with ideas of spirituality, organised religion, romantic love, bureaucracy, football and the ties of family.

THE FORRESTS, by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury Circus, $36.99). Goodness, how this divided the Listener Book Club. With its “story of a life” broken into a series of narrative snapshots and its lingering over the sensory minutiae of sound, smell, colour and movement, it was a novel readers either loved or hated. We loved it: a celebration of the ordinary life lived intensely; a place where the extra-ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn (Orion, $39.99). How well do we really know anyone: those closest to us, ourselves? A missing wife; a suspicious husband; disturbing secrets revealed in an unfolding hunt for “the truth”. Base ingredients for a fast-food thriller, but Flynn creates literary cuisine for bookish bon vivants, in which duelling unreliable narrators expose the disintegration of a marriage, the destructive power of dreams lost.

HHhH, by Laurent Binet (Harvill Secker, $34.99). Binet’s entirely factual main plotline – two Czechoslovakian soldiers making an assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi secret service head and hated “hangman of Prague” – is interwoven with his musings on the dilemmas of turning history into fiction. Yet the result is a thousand miles from being stilted or forced. A novel that is unique and unmissable.

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, $37). With this page-turning parable, Eggers has given us another book posing important questions about how to navigate the modern world. Its protagonist is a fiftysomething hollow man set adrift in the new world order of globalisation and offshore contracting, sent to Saudi Arabia to convince King Abdullah to select his IT company’s contract bid for a holographic teleconferencing system.

IGNORANCE, by Michele Roberts (Bloomsbury, $35). Roberts is a writer possessed not just of a poet’s gifts (she has published three collections) but also of the ability to create character, place and time in such vivid, sensuous detail that readers are beguiled into believing they are witness to the events described – in this case involving two childhood friends, one half-Jewish, taught by nuns in a small Catholic village in France during World War II.

IN THE ABSENCE OF HEROES, by Anthony McCarten (Vintage, $28.99). A witty, humane and dazzlingly clever sequel to McCarten’s 2005 novel Death of a Superhero, featuring the Delpe family (relocated from Taranaki to Watford, as they were in the UK version of Superhero) over a year on from son Donnie’s death from cancer. The family is falling apart, and when online gaming-obsessed surviving son Jeff goes missing, dad Jim gets his work IT department to help create an avatar to pursue him through the otherworld of Life of Lore. Also this year: a no-less-impressive rewritten version of McCarten’s 2002 Thomas Edison novel, Brilliance (Alma, $39.99).

THE INVISIBLE RIDER, by Kirsten McDougall (VUP, $30). Structurally and narratively, this is more a collection of linked stories than a novel, each episodic chapter self-contained, perfectly formed and featuring Philip Fletch, an odd yet likeable man who is baffled by the world and his place in it. With an evocative Wellington setting and the unexpected delight of illustrations by Gerard Crewdson, The Invisible Rider is charming, heart-wrenching and funny.

THE LAUGHTERHOUSE, by Paul Cleave (Penguin, $38). Cleave is a master of evoking the view askew; delving into the troubled psyches of conflicted characters. Former cop and convict Theo Tate, stumbling forward in search of some sort of redemption, returns to the scene of his first crime scene, hunting a killer and kidnapper set on revenge. Ferocious storytelling that makes you think and feel. A blood-stained high point in Cleave’s already impressive oeuvre, which also included this year a local release for Collecting Cooper (Penguin, $34.99).

THE LIGHTHOUSE, by Alison Moore (Canongate, $24.99). Moore was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for this first novel about a man thrown out of the marital home by his wife and embarking on a week’s walking trip in Germany, where his thoughts return to, among other things, the morning in his childhood when his mother left. A deceptively understated, claustrophobic horror story whose sinister import lies in its slow accumulation of seemingly mundane detail.

LITTLE SISTER, by Julian Novitz (Vintage, $28.99). Melbourne-based New Zealander Novitz handles his multiple narrators with aplomb in this psychological thriller, each account convincing in its own right and each progressively layering together to bring out both disparities and important parallels. Occasional nods to TS Eliot (particularly to Murder in the Cathedral, with its overtones of violence and self-justification) add their own resonances to the deliciously rich atmosphere of unease.

MAY WE BE FORGIVEN, by AM Homes (Granta, $36.99). An explosive firecracker of a novel that explores pristine American suburban life and the domestic horrors that lurk beneath the gloss. Rival brothers Harry, a grounded Nixon scholar, and George, an unhinged television producer, have always had an uneasy relationship, and when a sudden violent action takes place, roles are shifted and life is altered. With a searing satirical intensity, this is almost psychedelic in its tangible terror.

MERIVEL: A MAN OF HIS TIME, by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, $37.99). In this sequel to Restoration, we get to know Tremain’s 17th-century physician and consummate social climber much better than in the first novel, perhaps because in the 20-odd years since she invented him he has stayed in her imagination, filling out and becoming more real. And perhaps because he has calmed down a bit (no longer “in a lather of heat”) and has experienced genuine love – for the daughter he cut from her dying mother’s womb.

NW, by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, $37). Smith’s return to her old stomping ground of culturally mixed northwest London, with a “black existential novel” (in the racial sense) composed of fragmented, stylistically disparate sections, was only marginally less divisive than The Forrests (see above) when discussed by the Listener Book Club. We’d call it both brilliant and flawed (notably the poor ending), but a novel absolutely worth reading for its great characterisation, dazzling language and intelligence.

NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT, by Derek B Miller (Scribe, $40). At 82, cranky widowed former US Marine Sheldon Horowitz is the unlikely hero of this deep and remarkably good novel, in which he has gone to Norway to live with his granddaughter and finds himself protecting a Kosovar boy being pursued by the killer of his mother. As they flee, Horowitz muses about the son he encouraged to fight in Vietnam, where he was killed, as well as Jewishness, the Norwegian character and much more besides.

THE ONE HUNDRED YEAR OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED, by Jonas Jonasson (Allen & Unwin, $36.99). “An intelligent, very stupid book”, in the author’s own words, Jonass’s debut novel is an absurd black comedy that chronicles the convoluted centenarian capers that occur to Allan Karlsson after the title event, alongside Forrest Gump-esque episodes from his fantastical history-changing past. Jonasson’s simple, unfussy writing and ability to create and control a ridiculous plot are remarkable.

THE OPEN WORLD, by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage, $37.99). Johnson’s great-great-great-grandmother is the subject her career has been waiting for. In Elizabeth Horlock Smith, she has created (or channelled) a wonderful character: strong, likeable, wholly believable, a kind of everywoman of her age. Other members of the cast are rendered with equal deftness, and although Johnson’s research seems to have been exhaustive, it’s lightly worn. Best of all, though, is her feel for the elegance of the Victorian turn of phrase.

THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON, by Adam Johnson (Doubleday, $37.99). It’s not a comparison to be made lightly, but the benighted land of North Korea may have prompted its own Catch-22 in Johnson’s blackly comic parable of heroism, love and identity played out in a hallucinatory setting where each can be readily faked, stolen or destroyed.

RISK, by CK Stead (MacLehose, $29.99). Kiwi Sam Nola and his relationships are in the foreground of this London-set novel, but it’s at the moral bankruptcy of the times that Stead is aiming – times in which Tony Blair and George W Bush have set their sights on war in Iraq and the financial house of cards that will result in the 2008 crash is being built. It is all masterfully done, with an admirable lightness of touch and a cool rationality that is rare when memories are so fresh and emotions so raw.

SKIOS, by Michael Frayn (Faber and Faber, $36.99). Farce is by its nature over the top. But where some writers of farce go too far over the top, Frayn always refrains (sorry) from doing so. His is an English sense of the ridiculous. Skios is absurd, with laugh out loud moments and satirical touches. But as farce goes, it’s discreet, very intelligent and beautifully paced.

SOON, by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, $37.99). Soon reunites us with people from The Night Book, some of whom wandered through Grimshaw’s earlier books – but builds the cast, and swims more deeply in political currents and philosophical rips such as the notion of free will: how much are we in control of our actions? Grimshaw has said she likes the idea of fiction as mirror. In the absence of public intellectuals and given the sputtering light of local journalism, we increasingly look to our novelists to show us things we can’t always see.

STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE, by Ian Rankin (Orion, $36.99). Five years after retiring one of the most iconic characters in the history of crime fiction, Rankin brings back noble curmudgeon John Rebus. It was worth the wait. Sifting through cold cases as a civilian, an unchanged Rebus struggles with a changing world. His style of policing seems unwanted, but is it needed? Are unrelated disappearances the work of a serial killer? Change, loss, moving on: thought-provoking themes abound and Rankin keeps the entertainment needle at the redline.

THE SUMMER OF DEAD TOYS, by Antonio Hill (Doubleday, $37.99). Barcelona swelters in its oppressive heat and corruption. Inspector Hector Salgado also runs hot: returning from enforced leave after having snapped and beaten a suspect in a child sex-trafficking ring, he’s sidelined to an unofficial investigation into the fatal fall of a privileged student. Absorbing more than rollicking, Hill picks at the veneer, delving into the highs and lows of Spanish society. An outstanding debut.

SWIMMING HOME, by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories/Faber and Faber, $24.99). There are many reasons to welcome this novel’s inclusion on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, but one must surely be the little-digger-that-could/mouse-that-roared factor of it having been crowd-funded through subscriptions by original UK publisher And Other Stories. In just 150 pages, with the touch of a Muriel Spark, Levy deftly captures her array of characters caught up in a holiday from hell in the south of France.

TOBY’S ROOM, by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton, $37). A sort of sequel to Barker’s previous novel, Life Class. Sort of, because although many characters reappear, this second book opens in 1912, two years earlier than Life Class, and then leapfrogs to 1917. Both books begin in civvy street and move to the front line. And both come alive there after somewhat creaky beginnings. World War I is undoubtedly Barker’s métier.

2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, $36.99). This was going to be a love story with its setting amid a solar system-wide civilisation a backdrop only. We can thank Robinson’s editor for urging him to “go big” and make it a large-scale social portrait; we can thank Robinson’s reading of John Dos Passos’s structurally innovative USA trilogy for showing him a way to ensure the social portrait doesn’t swamp the original love story.

THE YELLOW BIRDS, by Kevin Powers (Sceptre, $29.99). A very different, more traditional approach to the war novel than Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (see above). No humour here, but there is piercing poetry in the unflinching depiction of life as a grunt in Iraq and then back in the US afterward – an experience shared (minus the fictional elements) by Powers, who served as a machine gunner in 2004-05.


DEAR LIFE, by Alice Munro (Chatto & Windus, $49.99). Munro keeps announcing her retirement, but luckily she’s not to be trusted: her latest collection is typically rich and enticing, exploring small-town Canada and beyond with her typical insight and clear-eyed humanity. The treat here is the book’s finale, four pieces Munro describes as “not quite stories”. These autobiographical excursions are “the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life”.

GORSE IS NOT PEOPLE: NEW AND UNCOLLECTED STORIES, by Janet Frame (Penguin, $40). No wonder Frame said posthumous publication was the only form of literary decency left. Once the author really is dead, the reader is cut free from thinking biography, or knowledge of the 1960s, is the “answer” to Frame, and has to accept the stories for what they are: juicy little bits of writing that don’t let you “solve” them or use them to escape to somewhere sweeter. A valuable and welcome addition to the Frame canon.

I GOT HIS BLOOD ON ME: FRONTIER TALES, by Lawrence Patchett (VUP, $35). You’ll go a long way before you find a collection of stories that so engage, tease, taunt and thrill your intelligence as these: real people (Maud Pember Reeves, Zane Grey, Dick Seddon) and real events, woven into face-paced tales of ghosts, holograms, time-travellers and a counterfactual account of the fabricated Orderist sect, which sets out to obstruct the work of bludgeoning sealers.

MANSFIELD WITH MONSTERS: THE UNTOLD STORIES OF A NEW ZEALAND ICON, by Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowens (Steam Press, $25). Against all expectations, this fantasy mash-up is great fun. The Cowens tweak Mansfield’s stories the absolute minimum required to transform them into HP Lovecraftian horrors (it’s less than you’d think), bringing a wicked sense of humour and a keen editorial ear to the project.

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER, by Junot Diaz (Faber and Faber, $35). Diaz continues to circle around recurring alter-ego Yunior and his family. Yunior is shaping up to be his equivalent of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, particularly in these electrifyingly written stories of sex and infidelity. A trip to New Zealand in “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” will give those who saw Diaz at the 2008 Auckland Writers & Readers Festival much to speculate about.

THE THRILL OF FALLING, by Witi Ihimaera (Vintage, $37.99). Has the enfant terrible of Maori literature really calcified into a cranky old koro, as his recent historical novels might suggest? His seventh collection of short fiction, and the second this year after a handsome 40th anniversary hardback edition of a substantially rewritten Pounamu Pounamu (Raupo, $34.99), says the answer is “not yet”. This is a welcome, and long overdue, return to form for Ihimaera.


BEAUTIES OF THE OCTAGONAL POOL, by Gregory O’Brien (AUP, $27.99). Where to jump in with O’Brien’s first collection in seven years? It doesn’t matter – it’s always the ocean (a word that is repeated in poem after poem, along with fish, boat, sail, sea, swim, shore, coral, island), but like Heraclitus’s river, it’s never the same ocean. This is saltwater poetry, populated more by marine creatures than it is by people, but it is also poetry that engages closely with art.

BIRDS OF CLAY, by Aleksandra Lane (VUP, $30). Lane’s themes, from a lesser poet, would have been a prime target for cliché: war, family, intimacy and its failures, cultural fragmentation, memory. Instead, showing the intellectual maturity of a poet with two published books (in her native Serbian), a startling freshness of language and a gaze untainted by sentimentality, she turns her material into pure gold.

COLLECTED POEMS 1957-2011, by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, $44.99). When he first landed in Wellington from the UK in the 1950s, Bland expected hula girls and palm trees. Instead he found damp state houses and legions of officious types with short back and sides. Bland turned that immigrant’s experience – renewed by frequent returns to the old country – into astute, witty, pathos-filled verse. This collection has no foreword, no commentary, no fancy cover, just the poems of a lifetime.

THE COMFORTER, by Helen Lehndorf (Seraph Press, $25). If you’re thinking snuggle-up, warm milk, there-there – don’t. This book burns with the pressures of what it’s like to be she who comforts. Honest about the way domestic responsibilities deflect adult fears and longings, it excels at capturing suburban claustrophobia, the enraging tedium of chores, the comedy of clashes between adult’s and child’s eye view. There is a clinched energy here; the poetry fizzes with ironies.

THE COMPLETE POEMS, by Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett (Faber and Faber, $75). The thoroughness of The Complete Poems is both its triumph and problem – one doubts Larkin, so careful about which poems he published in his lifetime, would be thrilled at the overexposure. The book’s major achievement is less its accurate completeness and more its commentary: there are notes on each poem – giving dates, drafts, explanations of lines, and comments made by Larkin (and others) in letters, print and interviews. A marvellous resource.

THE DARLING NORTH, by Anne Kennedy (AUP, $24.99). In Kennedy’s formally gymnastic The Darling North, she presents a compendious love poem, sonnets to Hawaii, modernised fairy tales and an almost novelistic exploration of the quality of north. The way she rubs together high-culture references with the jerky, grubby music of a Kiwi vernacular gives her work subversive, liberating dissonances.

DEAR HEART: 150 NEW ZEALAND LOVE POEMS, edited by Paula Green (Godwit, $36.99). A delightful piece of publishing, this hardback is a beautiful production with faultless attention to every detail, from the illustrations (on both the slip cover and the hard cover beneath, as well as on the endpapers and dotted throughout the text) to the paper stock. Take a bow, designer Megan van Staden. Green’s selection of poems isn’t so bad, either. Their reward: long stints on the best-seller chart. Readers want this kind of book.

ELEMENTAL: CENTRAL OTAGO POEMS, by Brian Turner (Godwit, $39.99). Godwit really is the anthology king, this time collecting together previously published regional verse by Turner with Gilbert Van Reenen’s photography. Another chart hit.

GRAFT, by Helen Heath (VUP, $28). Graft meaning here in particular the hard graft of the psyche’s recovery from grief and the diligent obsessiveness of scientific genius, with Heath shuttling between poems that frame the “undercut, undercurrent” of family history, the ongoing daily radiation of primal loss, and potted biographies of scientists ranging from Isaac Newton to Beatrice Tinsley.

KNUCKLEBONES: POEMS 1962-2012, by Sam Hunt (Craig Potton Publishing, $39.99). Potton continues to serve Hunt well with this hardback career-spanner, yet another poetry fixture in the year’s best-seller charts, suggesting the public appetite for Hunt (and indeed poetry in general) isn’t about to wane any time soon.

MAGNIFICENT MOON, by Ashleigh Young (VUP, $28). Young is best known for her prize-winning essays, but this striking first poetry collection may change that. Her poems demonstrate the same remarkable characteristics as her non-fiction: sceptical but unironic; sharply observant but nonjudgmental. Young finds the surreal in the quotidian, from brussels sprouts to T-shirts in Fitzrovia. Permeating these poems is a plea for kindness and human connection: a found poem, a five-word 18th-century suicide note, is heartbreaking.

THESE ROUGH NOTES, by Bill Manhire, Anne Noble, Norman Meehan and Hannah Griffin (VUP, $40, including CD). An elegant hardback, Selected Poems (VUP, $35), was also released, but this is the one we want to give the nod to, exemplifying as it does publishing at its best – bringing together both new and well loved Manhire poems on Antarctica with Noble’s unsurpassed photography and composer/pianist Meehan and singer Griffin’s musical settings of the poetry, all in one beautiful package. Publishers need to raise their game if they want their printed books to compete with e-books, and VUP here shows how it’s done.

THE TRUTH GARDEN, by Emma Neale (Otago, $30). The Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry winner examines and enriches the domestic experience. In poems like New Year, New You, Satellite and Loops, the intimacies, oddities and candours of the parent-child relationship are powerfully evoked. Elsewhere, love and death are broached candidly. The result transforms the everyday into the remarkable, the small into the significant.


FARTHER AWAY, by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate, $29.99). One of this book’s best features is Franzen’s championing of underrated writers. In thoughtful essays on Alice Munro and Christina Stead, he shows himself to be an ideal reader, his defence of short stories and quality fiction bracing, mordant and sharp. Elsewhere, he agonises over the death of David Foster Wallace, embarks on a perilous solo birdwatching adventure on a remote Chilean island, and nearly dies of boredom after a marathon book tour.

MORANTHOLOGY, by Caitlin Moran (Ebury Press, $36.99). The inevitable collection of columns, TV reviews, interviews and general features after the success of How to Be a Woman. Be warned, though: it is possible to be too funny for your own good and Moran’s relentless brilliance is best consumed in rationed doses lest it loses its shine.

PULPHEAD: DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF AMERICA, by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Vintage, $28.99). With its essays on a Christian rock festival, Guns N’ Roses, early country blues and Bunny Wailer – not to mention the most considered piece about Michael Jackson you’ll ever read – Pulphead could easily have qualified for our Music section. But Sullivan writes just as well – observant and incisive, switching from the comic to the lyrical without missing a beat – about his older brother’s near death, an elderly literary mentor, the appearance circuit of participants on MTV’s The Real World and America’s prehistoric cave paintings. He is, in short, someone you could read on anything.

THROUGH THE WINDOW: SEVENTEEN ESSAYS (AND ONE SHORT STORY), by Julian Barnes (Vintage, $28.99). It’s always a delight when you alight upon one of Barnes’s elegantly written and reasoned essays in the Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, New York Review of Books or some such place; well, now you can read 17 of them (plus that short story) in one place, with subjects ranging from Penelope Fitzgerald and George Orwell to Ford Madox Ford and different translations of Madame Bovary.


ARE YOU MY MOTHER? A COMIC DRAMA, by Alison Bechdel (Jonathan Cape, $39.99). Pioneering Freudian psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, Virginia Woolf, Bechdel’s vexed relationship with her mother … the Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist interweaves many strands in this followup to Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, her paradigm-shattering 2006 memoir about her father, named by the Observer as one of the 10 best graphic novels ever published.

COUNTRY GIRL: A MEMOIR, by Edna O’Brien (Faber and Faber, $39.99). Beautifully written, Country Girl is full of astonishing detail, particularly of O’Brien’s early years, but the 82-year-old insists she didn’t keep a diary, telling the Listener: “Only the very young or the mad keep diaries.”

AN INDESCRIBABLE BEAUTY: LETTERS HOME TO GERMANY FROM WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND, 1859 & 1862, by Friedrich August Krull (Awa Press, $38). Beautifully produced and illustrated, this is a gem. Krull’s mother must have been fascinated by the evocative letters he wrote to her in Germany, in which, with a sharp eye for social and natural distinctions, he created startling pictures in a few words.

JOSEPH ANTON, by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, $39.99). Rushdie’s story of living under a fatwa is a compelling third-person meditation on identity, exile and surviving head-on cultural collision. Under sentence of death by Ayatollah Khomeini, he takes the name Joseph Anton, one of a bunch of characters he becomes in a narrative over which he has no control. “How easy it was to erase a man’s past and construct a new version of him,” he writes. That he also became something of a celebrity, hanging out with models and stars, only makes Joseph Anton a more truly contemporary tale.

LETTERS OF FRANK SARGESON, selected and edited by Sarah Shieff (Vintage, $49.99). A satisfyingly intimate insight into Sargeson’s life, highs and lows, thoughts and ideas, philosophies and prejudices, capturing his milieu in a way even Michael King’s excellent Frank Sargeson: A Life couldn’t – the letters offering a personal note less attainable through the third-person approach. All to be taken with a grain of good Sargeson-flavoured salt, but generally providing highly entertaining and instructive reading.

THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN, by Masha Gessen (Granta, $36.99). An engaging and highly readable account by a Moscow journalist who previously covered events in Chechnya. Putin is said to have dreamed of being a KGB spy when other Russian boys dreamed of becoming cosmonauts, and for Gessen he represents “the KGB’s flesh and blood” – not least with a face that lacks any distinguishing features.

MORTALITY, by Christopher Hitchens (Allen & Unwin, $32.99). This collection of essays about “living dyingly” in “Tumorville” is wit, charmer and trouble-maker Hitchens’s account – moving but unsentimental, visceral but thoughtful – of the period after he was diagnosed with metastasised oesophageal cancer, from which he died of complications last December, aged 62.

STAG SPOONER: WILD MAN FROM THE BUSH, by Chris Maclean (Craig Potton, $49.99). Long before Barry Crump mythologised the deer cullers with A Good Keen Man, there was Spooner; in the same decade Frank Sargeson won praise for bringing the New Zealand vernacular into literature, Spooner, unselfconscious and unsung, was doing the same thing in his graphic diary and letters. Eighty years on, brought together by Maclean in this handsome book, his pictures and captions have a supernal glow.

TOUCHSTONES: A MEMOIR, by James McNeish (Vintage, $29.99). Much has been left out, some stories are left unfinished, there are errors; but these seem unimportant in someone who “invents things”. McNeish continues, as he began on the New Zealand Herald, with his “talent less for reporting news than for commenting on it, and occasionally improving on it …” But the news from McNeish is never less than evocative of people worth knowing and of lost times and places worth remembering.

YOUR UNSELFISH KINDNESS: ROBIN HYDE’S AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITINGS, edited by Mary Edmond-Paul (Otago, $40). Edmond- Paul’s magisterial editing of Hyde’s 1934 manuscript and comprehensive introduction make this an essential work for anyone interested in New Zealand literature. Hyde’s writing is intimate, searing and at times cryptic, and takes us on a dark voyage into tragedy and existential despair. But the rare elegance and luminosity of her prose shines through.


JEWISH LIVES IN NEW ZEALAND: A HISTORY, edited by Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow (Godwit, $55). In fascinating and handsomely illustrated essays, contributors write biographies of hundreds of Jewish New Zealanders who have made their mark. For a tiny community, they have certainly packed a punch.

THE SECOND WORLD WAR, by Antony Beevor (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $60). Beevor has a gift for making the big picture understandable, using a wealth of personal vignettes. This chronological account of the war – the best book he has written – encompasses every theatre and ranges from the highest-level decision-making to the soldier, sailor and airman at the sharp end.

TANGATA O LE MOANA: NEW ZEALAND AND THE PEOPLE OF THE PACIFIC, edited by Sean Mallon, Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai and Damon Salesa (Te Papa Press, $79.99). A wide-ranging account of a “millennium of exploration, encounter and cultural exchanges”. Essays start with the early contact days, are supported by incredible and previously unpublished photographs and end with well-chosen personal narratives. The photographs may be a major attraction but Pacific readers especially will enjoy setting their own remembrances against the rich historical timelines.


BAD PHARMA: HOW DRUG COMPANIES MISLEAD DOCTORS AND HARM PATIENTS, by Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate, $34.99). Goldacre reports in exhaustive detail how the system for testing new drugs is so utterly broken that patients have suffered and died unnecessarily. Favourable outcomes are published far more commonly than negative ones, and the results of many drug trials simply disappear. An important book, and perhaps a turning point.

MAD ON RADIUM: NEW ZEALAND IN THE ATOMIC AGE, by Rebecca Priestley (AUP, $45). From the days when the public rushed to bathe in radium spas and you could bake with Radium brand bread, through the development of nuclear weapons and onward, Priestley’s research has yielded a treasure trove of contemporary publications and she assembles, with quiet detachment, a plethora of factual information that allows a critical reassessment of key dimensions of New Zealand security policy since World War II.

MOA: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF NEW ZEALAND’S LEGENDARY BIRD, by Quinn Berentson (Craig Potton Publishing, $49.99). The story of the scientific discovery of the bones of New Zealand’s “feathered monsters”, the zoological find of the century. From eccentric 19th-century fossil collectors and arguments about moa hunters, we move to DNA analysis that reveals the different moa species and the surprising sexual dimorphism (some of the males were the size of a turkey). An action-packed, fact-filled melding of science and history, filled with fabulous photographs, illustrations and cartoons.

1912: THE YEAR THE WORLD DISCOVERED ANTARCTICA, by Chris Turney (Text, $45). Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen weren’t the only explorers in Antarctica in 1912: teams from Australia, Germany and Japan had also set out to conquer the South Pole. Turney tells of how “tales of derring-do” from the frozen continent took public curiosity about Antarctica to “fever pitch”. His lively style and keen eye for the quirks of human nature – and the barminess of some explorers’ schemes – make this a hugely entertaining read.

SCIENCE ON ICE: DISCOVERING THE SECRETS OF ANTARCTICA, by Veronika Meduna (AUP, $59.99). Meduna transports the reader beyond ice, snow and glaciers into some of the conundrums of the continent. As to why such a distant place is worth studying, she sets out the lofty research goals clearly and compellingly, and teases out the essential background and key discoveries with the clarity you would expect from this experienced science communicator.


BULLER’S BIRDS OF NEW ZEALAND: THE COMPLETE WORK OF JG KEULEMANS, by Geoff Norman (Te Papa Press, $150). This classic big-boned beauty reminds us why we like e-readers but love books. Generations of Kiwis were brought up with Keulemans’s images of native birds adorning calendars and biscuit tins, but we’ve never seen them looking as lush and lovely as this. Buller’s Birds is not just of interest to nature lovers, either – there’s art and history as well as ornithology and conservation. And don’t we love the gold-edged pages.

HANLY, by Gregory O’Brien et al (Ron Sang Publications, $135). The generous reproductions of Pat Hanly’s colourful paintings are perfect for a series that represents the ultimate coffee-table book. Indeed, if Hanly’s sumptuous painted surfaces hadn’t existed, Ron Sang may have had to invent them. Like many earlier Sang books, Hanly is striking for its full-page images, extended fold-outs and concise essays – most notably O’Brien’s, which gets inside the head of the artist and his entire oeuvre.

INHALE/EXHALE, by Vincent Ward (Ron Sang Publications, $135). Ward gets the Sang treatment (see above). Which – given the sheer scale of the originals of these artworks, exhibited in solo shows this year at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and in Auckland – is the only way to begin doing them justice. With essays by Roger Horrocks and Andrew Clifford.

MANLY AFFECTIONS: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF ROBERT GANT 1885-1915, by Chris Brickell (Genre, $49.95). Brickell quotes historian Bronwyn Dalley’s suggestion that old photographs can give up the “involuntary confessions of history, the things tucked away in the corner of images”. Gant’s work is instead the polar opposite of reticent colonial imagery, semaphoring an urgent and quite palpable homoeroticism played out in fantastic scenarios. The beauty of Brickell’s charming book lies in its revelation of a much sexier and far more interesting past than we might have imagined.

Selling the DreamSELLING THE DREAM: THE ART OF EARLY NEW ZEALAND TOURISM, edited by Peter Alsop, Gary Stewart and Dave Bamford, foreword by Fran Walsh (Craig Potton Publishing, $79.99). In essays supporting its hundreds of reproductions of posters and covers for annuals, brochures and magazines, Selling the Dream also sells the idea that commercial artists employed by the Tourist Department and Railways Department in the first half of the 20th century were at the forefront of New Zealand Modernism and the forging of a national identity through movements such as Regionalism. The case is a compelling one; the images are magnificent.

240: TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY YEARS OF NEW ZEALAND PAINTING, by Gil Docking, Michael Dunn and Edward Hanfling (Bateman, $99.99). The return of an old friend, first published in 1971 under Docking’s guidance, extended in 1990 by Dunn, and now with Hanfling as our chaperone through the past two decades (although playing it straight, reining in the characterful critical voice that makes him such a great art reviewer).


AVANT GARDE: AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY FROM GERTRUDE STEIN TO PIERRE BOULEZ, by Robin Maconie (Scarecrow Press, $110). So much to tell, so little space – a mere 309 pages for all the facts, opinions and sidetracks Maconie crams into Avant Garde. Maconie can be stimulating, searching and provocative on music and much else. It’s that “much else” that makes him stimulating. It’s his distaste for any complacent listening that makes him provocative. It’s his searching mind that produces sentences that start with Mozart’s Magic Flute and by way of Captain Cook and Sydney Parkinson end up at James Cameron’s Avatar.

HOW MUSIC WORKS, by David Byrne (Canongate, $49.99). This has been the year of the music autobiography/biography, and if anyone was going to think outside the square it is former Talking Head Byrne. Part general meditation, part how-to music business guide and, yes, part memoir, too, this is a wonderfully wandering collection of essays.

HOW SOON IS NOW? THE MADMEN AND MAVERICKS WHO MADE INDEPENDENT MUSIC 1975-2005, by Richard King (Faber and Faber, $49.99). A celebratory insight into the record labels that were the bracings of the indie music industry. Factory, Mute, Rough Trade, 4AD, Postcard and Creation were established by music maniacs who didn’t have flash business plans or a lot of money, but made up for that with spirit and ingenuity. Packed full of anecdotes about the personalities behind the music and their crack-ups and breakdowns, this is the story of the people who released some of the most thrilling records of their time.

I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN, by Sylvie Simmons (Jonathan Cape, $37.99). With so many anecdotal and selective-memory autobiographies around by musicians, it’s a pleasure to read a serious writer dissecting, illuminating and revealing the life and diverse work (music, poetry, novels) of such a deserving subject as Cohen, who co-operated graciously but never interfered or asked to see the manuscript. Cohen’s a rare one, and Simmons’s assiduous research and insight show why.

TRAMPLED UNDER FOOT: THE POWER AND EXCESS OF LED ZEPPELIN, by Barney Hoskyns (Faber and Faber, $39.99). Was John Bonham “a schizophrenic animal, like something out of Straw Dogs” or “a family man who missed his wife when he was on the road”? Viewpoints as differing as these only help make this book the most believable account yet of Led Zeppelin’s sordid, spectacular saga.

WHO I AM, by Pete Townshend (Harper-Collins, $44.99). Whereas peers have employed the services of ghost writers, Townshend – always the most loquacious rocker of his generation – has had a long association with the literary world. In Who I Am, he gives a methodical, chronological account of his life. The first half – before the recriminations and justifications of later years – is hard to put down; the prose, like Townshend’s best music, blazes with energy, passion and intelligence.

100 LOST ROCK ALBUMS FROM THE 1970s, by Matthew Ingram aka Woebot (Kindle Editions, US$2.99). Rather than heading for the wormholes of obscurity, Ingram’s definition of lost thankfully encompasses albums “hiding in plain sight” that have been written out of history’s refashioning. His other credo – “all of these records are interesting, not all are excellent” – gives him licence to write in his relaxed, knowledgeable way about everything from Savoy Brown’s Raw Sienna to JJ Cale’s Naturally and Crass’s Stations of the Crass.


THE ANTIDOTE: HAPPINESS FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN’T STAND POSITIVE THINKING, by Oliver Burkeman (Text, $40). Most self-help books have one really good idea – this gem has perhaps a dozen or more. Burkeman pulls together influential thinkers from the ancient Greeks to contemporary psychologists to argue that being compulsively upbeat and positive is not the path to happiness, and that goal-setting is bunk. Instead, he outlines a “negative” path of learning to enjoy uncertainty, embrace insecurity and becoming familiar with failure, all to lessen their sting.

ATHFIELD ARCHITECTS, by Julia Gatley (AUP, $75). “Houses have shattered into happenings,” wrote Group architect Allan Wild in 1968. From his landmark home/office-cum-tumbling village in Wellington, Athfield is arguably New Zealand’s chief shatterer. A biography/bibliography of Athfield Architects is itself a landmark project that has to be done well and Gatley delivers in spades.

THE AUCKLAND UNIVERSITY PRESS ANTHOLOGY OF NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (AUP, $75). Not everyone will approve of its editors’ methodology, and the absence (enforced or otherwise) of Janet Frame, Alan Duff, Vincent O’Sullivan and Charlotte Grimshaw is unfortunate, but on any terms this landmark publication of nearly 1200 pages covering more than 200 years is an astonishing achievement, full to the brim with selections to savour.

BLACK: THE HISTORY OF BLACK IN FASHION, SOCIETY AND CULTURE IN NEW ZEALAND, curated by Doris De Pont (Penguin, $59.99). There are places where de Pont should have wielded curatorial secateurs, and a sustained investigation of black in the fine art tradition is a strange omission, but this bible of black will nonetheless effortlessly infiltrate fashion, art and cultural studies bookshelves, conceivably decorate a gothic coffee table and even pose as a convincing prop on a Satanic altar.

QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING, by Susan Cain (Penguin/Viking, $37). Self-proclaimed quiet one Cain explores the distinction between introversion and extraversion in culture, politics, leadership, business and personal relationships. She is perhaps slightly guilty of stereotyping, since the distinction is not so much a dichotomy as a dimension, but the book is informative and a source of comfort and advice to those of us who struggle to speak in public or make our presence felt in the boardroom.

SHELTER FROM THE STORM: THE STORY OF NEW ZEALAND’S BACKCOUNTRY HUTS, by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown and Geoff Spearpoint (Craig Potton Publishing, $79.99). Backcountry huts are given their due here, and due respect is given also to the generations of pastoralists, trampers, deer cullers and mountaineers who hammered together these timber, tin and malthoid shelters deep in the hills. The book includes essays on hut development over time, and a hut-by-hut account, including great photographs, of 90 shelters.

TRAPPED: REMARKABLE STORIES OF SURVIVAL FROM THE 2011 CANTERBURY EARTHQUAKE, by Martin van Beynen, foreword by Mayor Bob Parker (Penguin, $35). Van Beynen has an ability to frame people’s stories, opening up for us a window on the soul, a vision of what it was like to feel your life was at an end and what really counted. Look out, too, for the interviews in Fiona Farrell’s The Quake Year (CUP, $40), with photographs by Juliet Nicholas.

WHY NATIONS FAIL: THE ORIGINS OF POWER, PROSPERITY AND POVERTY, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (Profile, $39.99). Beg, buy or borrow this brilliant book. But don’t, whatever you do, steal it. Stealing – theft, extortion, corruption, larceny (petty and grand) – is at the root of just about every economic evil, past, present and future, according to Acemoglu and Robinson in their fascinating account of nations’ economic failure and success over the past two or so millennia.

Comments from previously published and forthcoming Listener reviews and features, and by Alison Ballance, Sally Blundell, Mark Broatch, Geoff Chapple, Kiran Dass, Siobhan Harvey, Helen Heath, Ruth Laugesen, Paula Morris, Jim Pinckney, Rebecca Priestley, Graham Reid, Craig Sisterson, Guy Somerset, Tim Upperton, Nelson Wattie and Diana Wichtel.

What they were reading

Visit our Books & Culture blog Listening In for the literary highlights of the year for Joan Druett, Greg McGee, James McNeish, Bill Manhire, Paula Morris, Emily Perkins, Albert Wendt and many more.

To find out what the top 50 children's books of 2012 are, click here.