100 best books of 2008

by Listener Archive / 13 December, 2008
With the Christmas holidays almost upon us, it's again time to sort out one of the essentials: which books to soak up this summer? To help you, Arts & Books editor Guy Somerset and our team of reviewers bring you their pick of the year's top reads, from novels, short stories and poetry to memoirs and picture books

NOVELS

THE BEHAVIOUR OF MOTHS, by Poppy Adams (Virago, $38.99).

An exquisitely written, kaleidoscopic tale of two sisters reunited, after nearly half a century, in the crumbling Gothic mansion in Dorset where they grew up. Adams' debut is reminiscent of the terrifying, garish theatrics of Robert Aldrich's macabre and hysterical movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The title comes from lepidopterist sister Ginny, who is more comfortable with moths than with people. Adams' background as a film-maker serves her well in a novel full of vivid scenes, striking images and spot-on pacing.

BEIJING COMA, by Ma Jian (Chatto and Windus, $36.99). London-based dissident Ma's novel is a theatrical pageant, by turns comic, lyric and tragic. Its narrative arc is that of the People's Republic of China through the 20th century and up to 2008. It's a novel of the Old China - cast your mind back to the feudal yoke of Pearl S Buck's The Good Earth - and Mao Zedong's New China, but mostly of the new New China, where Marxist-Leninist ideology has become a get-rich-quick scheme for Communist Party members and the people of the republic groan under the weight of the new feudal yoke of -globalisation.

BREATH, by Tim Winton (Hamish Hamilton, $50). You won't find better writing about surfing - either inside fiction or outside it; about either the "useless beauty" of the act itself or the bigger existential questions surrounding it. Winton's theme is the inherent human yearning for excitement and its corollaries, risk and fear ("Being scared is half the fun"), and the anguish of accommodating yourself to the passing of that excitement. If only he would take a few more risks himself, and move on from the keening tone of men recalling the small-town mateships of their youth from the lonely ruins of middle age. We know he can do that, and to perfection.

CEMETERY LAKE, by Paul Cleave (Black Swan, $34.99). In Christchurch writer Cleave's third novel, set like the others in his home city, someone is murdering young women - and then hiding their bodies in coffins dug up from the cemetery. The coffins' original inhabitants are weighted down and chucked in the lake. Former cop Theo Tate, now a private eye, investigates. Tate has his own black side. Two years ago, a drunk driver killed his daughter and left his wife virtually brain-dead. Tate is suspected of applying capital punishment to the driver, who disappeared. Cleave tells the story with great flair. The plot is beautifully constructed, the characters come to worrying life, and it is all wrapped in an atmosphere of pervading evil that will make you wonder whether you should be reading it late at night.

THE COLLECTOR OF WORLDS, by Iliya Troyanov (Faber and Faber, $37.99). This is an epic fictionalised account of Victorian explorer Richard Francis Burton by globe-trotting Bulgarian-German writer Troyanov. With its shifting perspectives, multiple voices and colourful set scenes, it is an ambitious portrait of the life and times of the eccentric adventurer and those he encountered on his journey. Despite its colonial setting, its exploration of cultural cross-pollination and the search for knowledge and enlightenment far from home makes it truly a story for our times.

DEVIL MAY CARE: A JAMES BOND NOVEL, by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming (Penguin/Michael Joseph, $37). Some secret agents, as a secret agent in Devil May Care asserts, just have class. And so do some novelists. This is vintage Fleming - even if it's not written by him. Commissioned to mark the centenary of his birth, the novel is the work of Faulks. He may have seemed a strange choice at first glance - his previous books are conspicuously more serious-minded than genre fiction tends to be - but he proves a happy one, taking Bond to the brink of self-parody but (mostly) drawing back. The villain's rant against all things British, stemming from a pathological hatred acquired at Oxford, where he was teased about his malformed hand, is hilarious.

THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE, by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, $36.99). A fairy tale in the original tradition, like those of the Brothers Grimm before Disney airbrushed the horror and malice out of them. The stylised extravagance of the subject matter is well matched by the sumptuous language. Rushdie's prose seethes with ideas and images, overflowing with colour, texture, scent and sound. Indeed, the complexity of the prose can be overwhelming, in the same way that the plot, with its genealogies, doublings and trickeries, can be hard to follow. But the experience is itself so delightful, so seductive, that such an excess is simply an invitation for rereading.

A FRACTION OF THE WHOLE, by Steve Toltz (Penguin, $28). Set primarily in New South Wales in the second half of the 20th century, Toltz's Man Booker Prize-shortlisted debut follows brothers Martin and Terry Dean and their adventures in megalomania and crime respectively. We also get to know Martin's son, Jasper. A nutty, whirlwind tour that is a guilty pleasure and a literary page-turner, A Fraction of the Whole brings the kinds of pleasures that remind us what made us readers in the first place.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, by Stieg Larsson (Quercus, $37.99). The standout crime novel of the year - and a debut, to boot. It is the first in a trilogy, with the second, The Girl Who Played with Fire, set to be released here in the new year. Sadly, Larsson, a journalist, died in 2005 before any of the novels were published. His detective is a journalist, too - a financial journalist, and what better year to have one of those for a thriller's hero? But the crime at the centre of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn't relate to money: the baddies here are Nazi sympathisers and the theme is indicated by the novel's original title, Men Who Hate Women.

GOD OF SPEED, by Luke Davies (Allen & Unwin, $37.99). Australian Davies' third novel is a pastiched imagining of that magnates' magnate Howard Hughes. What could have been a risky undertaking is a tour de force of subtle, supple writing as we yo-yo over the mind and times of the physically bed-bound but mentally high-flying Hughes. In Davies' monologue, Hughes is a Rubik's cube of emotional contradictions - including a speed-freak (in every sense) visionary who became an obsessive-compulsive drug addict and debauchee with paranoid delusions. And few writers in our part of the world understand addiction and obsessive-compulsive behaviour better than the author of Candy.

THE GONE-AWAY WORLD, by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann, $36.99). Read the first chapter of Harkaway's comic ninja post-apocalyptic war odyssey and you'll either be thoroughly hooked or well warned off. He has the kind of lunatic brilliance that can't be faked, making a performance piece out of each extravagantly entertaining paragraph while setting up some truly astonishing plot reversals. Grand fun on a grand scale from the son of John le Carré.

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, by Mary Ann Shaffer (Allen & Unwin, $35). Under the cutesy title is a warm, charming and intelligent novel. A wartime history and epistolary romance, it is told via letters exchanged between a droll London-based writer, her old friends, an ardent suitor and the motley members of the titular society as they emerge from years under German occupation. Alas for us, this will be Shaffer's only novel (it was completed posthumously by her niece, who winds the story up neatly, if a trifle briskly).

HOME, by Marilynne Robinson (Virago, $49.99). Instead of another long silence (23 years between Housekeeping and 2004's Gilead), Robinson leaps back into print with a third novel set in 1956 in the near-moribund Iowan town of Gilead. It's not a sequel, though, but rather a companion piece, its events intersecting with those of the earlier novel. Like that predecessor, Home is outstanding: wise and moving and quietly provocative.

INDIGNATION, by Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, $49.99). Roth continues in the novella mode of his past two books, Exit Ghost and Everyman, with death once again casting its shadow: Indignation is narrated by a "ghost". Fear not, however, for Roth's faith in atheism and the absence of an afterlife - all is squared in the end. The "ghost" is Marcus Messner, a Jew from Newark remembering his time at a stuffy liberal arts college in 1950s Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson, anyone?). Marcus has fled his father's stifling fears for his well being - fears that prove inadvertently well founded. He finds comfort and then consternation in the arms (and mouth, this being Roth) of a beautiful girl, and in eventually undone by his uncontrollable capacity for the indignation of the title.

LANDINGS, by Jenny Pattrick (Black Swan, $27.99). On a canoe trip down the Whanganui River, the author of the Denniston Rose trilogy came upon the boarded up Pipiriki Hotel and learned of the droves of sighseers that at the turn of the last century would travel there by steamboat to stay in its elegant rooms - the Whanganui being the "Rhine of Maoriland". And so Pattrick had a new community on which to base her bestselling fiction. There are mayn jostling voices in the novel and some are less effective than others, but at their best they are pitch perfect. And any reservations are overridden by the alchemy of the story; Landings is a powerful yarn set in an extraordinary time and place.

THE LIEUTENANT, by Kate Grenville (Text, $55). An epiphanous novel, possible Grenville's best. In it, she returns to the settler Australia of The Secret River, but goes a big step further in having her central character, quiet, moody young astronomer Lieutenant Rooke, make close contact with people of the Cadigal tribe (Grenville never uses the word "Aboriginal"). The result is an extraordinary adventure into the nature of language, culture and human communication - and also a thrilling alternative history of modern Australia's beginnings.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF LAURA FRIDAY AND OF PAVAROTTI HER PARROT, by David Murphy (HarperCollins, $26.99). That title! How too-hard is this guy trying? Well, Murphy does try very hard in his first, funny, flat-out novel, and his labour of laughs works pretty damn well. There's lots of subversive, small town RH Morrieson anarchy, but in style and subjects Laura Friday goes much further. Sustained peddle-and-meddle comedy is hugely hard and too seldom esteemed, so set it down here: Murphy has made a stylish, spirited stab at it.

MISCONDUCT, by Bridget Van Der Zijpp (VUP, $30). This first novel, about what happens when childless 40 year old Simone is dumped by long term beau Fraser and made redundant, brings to mind three words: Bridget Jones's Diary. But, though like Bridget, Simone hunts hard for self healing and passion, Misconduct's darker edges move the narrative beyond a Helen Fielding-like examination of women's lot in a post feminist world into more meaningful psychological portraits of its characters, not least the rural New Zealand community that is the novel's greatest strength.

NETHERLAND, by Joseph O'Neill (Fourth Estate, $29.99). We predicted in August that Irishman Joseph O'Neill's novel about New York and its cricket circuit would catapult him into the realm of John Banville, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes - and, sure enough, it went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker prize. This is not only a great post September 11 novel but one of the great novels of New York full stop, with the city's energy coming as much from the West Indies, Pakistan and India as it does from Times Square and Greenwich Village. It is also a novel of family and friendship, and the value of both.

NOVEL ABOUT MY WIFE, by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury, $35). Life is precarious, shadowed by imminent loss, in a vivid and assured portrait of restless London and its artistic class. This is Perkins at the top of her craft. Once pigeon holed (to her annoyance) as the "voice of her generation", she channels an unexpected and utterly convincing new voice in this elegantly unsettling novel: that of a self obsessed, self-loathing Englishman. Tom Stone has much in common with the protagonists of Perkins' earlier work: the studied ennui, the reflexive sneer of frustration, the almost pathological fat phobia. But he is more complex: an unreliable narrator who knows it. He is acidly funny, too.

THE REHEARSAL, by Eleanor Catton (VUP, $30). This is the first novel that has just secured Catton, fresh out of Bill Manhire's creative writing course, book deals with Granta in the UK and Little, Brown in the US. Much has been made of the formal audacity with which Catton frames her story of a teacher-pupil sex scandal: parallel and converging narratives set within two schools of performing arts, one of acting, the other of music; endless interrogation of, and playing with, the very notion of "performance". Less has been said about her beady eye for character and behaviour. And if - as reviewers have complained - the novel comes more from the head than the heart, what of it? Couldn't the same be said of Muriel Spark's debut, The Comforters? She's in good company.

THE RINGMASTER, by Vanda Symon (Penguin, $28). Fictional detectives are usually middle-aged, male and morose. Sam Shepherd couldn't be more different - she's young, female and perky. And she's Kiwi, very Kiwi. In The Ringmaster, the second book in Symon's series, Sam is a trainee police detective in Dunedin. She suspects the murder of a young woman on the banks of the Leith is linked with a series of killings that have occurred in other South Island cities when the circus has been in town. The circus adds extra colour to the story, especially when its elephant - with which Sam has established a bond - runs amok in the middle of Dunedin.

THE SECRET SCRIPTURE, by Sebastian Barry (Faber and Faber, $37.99). This Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel is a historical elegy, psychological study and mystery thriller featuring two confessions of life through the Irish Troubles of the 1920s. With beautifully controlled pace and voice, probing the fallibility (both deliberate and natural) of memory, Barry relates the story of Roseanne, a centenarian inmate of an asylum, and Dr Grene, her psychiatrist. A modern retelling of Christ's nativity, The Secret Scripture is a savage indictment of religious hypocrisy, political vindictiveness and the state's purging of sexuality.

THE SLAP, by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin, $37.99). Tsiolkas casts a cold eye over modern Australia in a sprawling novel that takes as its starting point the slapping of a child by a man who is not his father. The novel is told from the point of view of eight people, with characters that are complicated, flawed and richly described. Tsiolkas has a talent for portraying sex and relationships with vividness, candour and authenticity. Looming above all the human frailty is the law, which threatens because it's a blunt instrument, unable to deal with human subtleties.

THE SPARE ROOM, by Helen Garner (Text, $35). Garner prefaces her first novel in 15 years with an Elizabeth Jolley quote: "It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep." Her narrator Helen (there is much that is autobiographical about this book) is preparing a place for her friend Nicola while she undergoes treatment for cancer. There are realistic and alarming descriptions of that treatment - of alternative cures and those who exploit the dying - but this is first and foremost something more powerful: an account of the agony and anger that a patient's friend experiences. Garner's prose is as shapely as always.

TWO LITTLE BOYS, by Duncan Sarkies (Penguin, $28). The story of dumb and dumber duo Deano and Nige ("He's like a little brother to me," says Deano, "even more than that - he's like a girlfriend, except that I'm not attracted to him or anything") and their attempts to dispose of the Norwegian tourist Nige has run over ("the backpacker is in the backpack"). The good bits might not always be holding hands, but they are very, very good mates. Overall, there is a freshness, a verve and enough maniacal joy for the reader to enjoy the company of two bogans on their most excellent misadventure.

THE VOLUPTUOUS DELIGHTS OF PEANUT BUTTER AND JAM, by Lauren Liebenberg (Virago, $34.99). Voluptuous and delightful indeed, Liebenberg's first novel brings sumptuous prose to bear upon the enchanting life of sandwich-eating, eight-year-old landowners' daughter Nyree O'Callahan during the 1970s Rhodesian civil war. With the help of an equally rich and enthralling supporting cast, Nyree reveals to us a picturesque country fragmented by violence, poverty and competing belief systems (Catholicism versus African paganism; white supremacy versus majority rule) - all of which fosters a better understanding of the abundant troubles faced by present-day Zimbabweans.

WE ARE NOW BEGINNING OUR DESCENT, by James Meek (Text, $37). Set after the invasion of Afghanistan, Meek's follow-up to The People's Act of Love tells the story of newspaper foreign correspondent turned airport thriller writer Adam Kellas and grapples unhesitatingly with the defining forces of our time. It is a beautifully written and often caustically comic novel that offers a series of juxtapositions between journalism, literature and propaganda, with Meek treating his readers as the ideal that Kellas no longer believes in: critical, thoughtful people with minds of their own.

Short stories

BEYOND THE BREAKWATER: SHORT STORIES 1948-1998, by OE Middleton (Otago, $49.95). Many so-called "realists" (following Maxim Gorky) put better-than-life characters into banal settings so they and we can be "redeemed". Middleton plays no such trick, but his love for his flawed and unspectacular characters persuades us to share it, which is redemption enough. He writes of people who might be called "losers" by the insensitive but helps us warm to their struggle for life and dignity, not only for themselves but for those around them. These 26 stories are a welcome reminder of Middleton's originality, sincerity and vernacular liveliness.

THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Lorrie Moore (Faber and Faber, $75). A necessary collection, after 10 years of quiet - if not silence - from Moore. Arranged in reverse chronological order, this book unwinds from recent New Yorker stories through pieces of a novel and her four collections, all the way back to 1985's Self Help, published when she was just 28. The concision and bite of the stories, informed by Moore's shrewd, unrelenting wit, present a view of America resolutely the author's own. Some of her contemporaries may have published more, but their first works of fiction are arguably their best. As the recent stories demonstrate, Moore just gets better; no wonder she continues to be so influential a writer, so essential a read.

ETIQUETTE FOR A DINNER PARTY, by Sue Orr (Vintage, $29.99). There is an elegant compression to the shorter stories in Orr's debut, which was longlisted for the prestigious Frank O'Connor short-story award. But most enjoyable are the pieces where she allows herself a larger canvas and more extended narrative. At their best, the stories are intriguing, clear-eyed explorations of gaps and misunderstandings between people, and gaps between hopes or expectations and reality, with some nicely black twists and turns thrown in.

FINE JUST THE WAY IT IS, by Annie Proulx (Fourth Estate, $29.99). As the title ironically suggests, a spirit of endurance and fatalism runs through Proulx's third collection of Wyoming stories. The characters here do their best with what they're given, but happiness seldom lasts long and life is often nasty, brutish and short. Proulx's prose is masterful, and her stories are beautifully paced and eloquent. There are some shorter, lighter pieces, too, including two comic tales featuring the Devil and a spirited fantasy about a giant sagebrush with a mind of its own.

FORBIDDEN CITIES, by Paula Morris (Penguin, $28) . The stories - set, as the cover recounts, "from Sunset Boulevard to the beaches of Auckland, from the Bund in Shanghai to the banks of the Danube" - were written for a range of publications and purposes, but Forbidden Cities is unified by Morris' concern with the way people from very different backgrounds and with competing desires can come together to build new relationships. They are substantial stories, even the shorter ones, allowing for changes in perspective and back-story details that weight them with a sense of the time before and after their present tense.

THE GIRL WHO PROPOSED: NEW SHORT STORIES, by Elizabeth Smither (Cape Catley, $27.95) . Smither is at the height of her powers in this, her fifth collection, another New Zealand book on the longlist for the Frank O'Connor award. It is with effortlessly flowing prose and confidence that she takes us on her various journeys, introducing us to two would-be internet lovers; a quartet of bachelors living in cheerful squalor; a violin player struggling with the demands of international touring and his need for both a wife and a mistress; and a series of single women coping with divorce, death, dating, teenage children, Pilates classes, car accidents, and what to do when faced with a spare single bed in a hotel room.

MY MISTRESS'S SPARROW IS DEAD: GREAT LOVE STORIES FROM CHEKHOV TO MUNRO, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides (HarperPress, $34.99). This collection comes complete with a "To/From" nameplate page, but don't go giving it to anyone in the first flush of smitten soppiness, because as Eugenides says in his introduction: "The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims - these are lucky eventualities but they aren't love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name." This book, however, gives the love story itself a good name, thanks to its unusual range of writers, including Harold Brodkey with one of the wonders of 20th-century American literature: Innocence, an epic account of a virtuosic bout of cunnilingus.

OUR STORY BEGINS: NEW AND SELECTED STORIES, by Tobias Wolff (Bloomsbury, $59.99) . In a Wolff story, you will find a character, complicated and compromised but palpably real; a situation, abrupt and challenging; and an ending (but by no means a resolution) that soars off at an exhilarating tangent. In the best of his stories, there is almost an audible crack as he suddenly lofts the narrative ball he's been quietly bouncing and then hits it right out of the park. You learn to expect surprise, but the surprise Wolff delivers is never quite the one you were expecting, the epiphanies never pat or predictable. His great gift is not just in creating characters, but in concocting situations that oblige his characters to define themselves.

SELECTED STORIES, by Owen Marshall, edited by Vincent O'Sullivan (Vintage, $39.99) . This handsome volume, with its Grahame Sydney cover, harvests 30 years' work. O'Sullivan's selection of 60 stories is generous, comprising more than 600 pages, and is thoroughly representative, presenting fully the Marshall world: chronologically, from the first published story, Descent from the Flugelhorn, to Watch of Gryphons, the title story from his 2005 collection; lengthwise, with stories varying from the three-and-a-half pages of The Rose Affliction to the 42 of Minding Lear; tonally, from the outrageously exaggerated black humour of Hodge to the quiet and sober realism of Prince Valiant; and modally, from the satire-fantasy of Another Generation to the slice-of-life realism of 309 Hollandia.

SOME OTHER COUNTRY: NEW ZEALAND'S BEST SHORT STORIES, edited by Marion McLeod and Bill Manhire (VUP, $35). First published in 1984 and now back for a fourth edition (the last was in 1997). Added to the mix: stories by William Brandt, Jo Randerson, Damien Wilkins, Charlotte Grimshaw, Alice Tawhai and Tracey Slaughter.

UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury, $35) . Lahiri's wonderful collection - winner of the Frank O'Connor award - takes its title from a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote: "My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." Like Lahiri's previous two books, it is populated largely by Bengali immigrants and their high-achieving, educated, upwardly mobile children, all trying to find a place for themselves in America. These are big, substantial, satisfying stories, with a breadth and depth that recalls Alice Munro; each feels like a complete world in itself.

Travel, essays and music

ARABESQUES: A TALE OF DOUBLE LIVES, by Robert Dessaix (Picador, $57.99) . With this and its predecessor, 2004's Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev, Dessaix has raised the literary travel memoir to his own sophisticated level - not least because literature, travel and memoir are indeed equal elements (rather than the usual use of the description for what is actually just a nicely written travel book). Picador adds to the experience with a delightfully produced and illustrated hardback. Andre Gide (married but homosexual - hence the subtitle) is the author who's the guiding light this time: Dessaix traces his path through France, Algeria and Morocco in a book that is elegant and erudite yet informed by a fine sense of the ridiculous.

THE ATLANTIC OCEAN: ESSAYS ON BRITAIN AND AMERICA, by Andrew O'Hagan (Faber and Faber, $59.99). O'Hagan can sometimes fall in thrall to his own self-importance, but once he, and we, get past that, he is one of the most incisive essayists at large - appearing primarily in the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. His great virtue is that, as well as the reflective reviews and other pieces from the confines of his study, he gets out and reports - on subjects as varied as the decline of British farming and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

THE AWA BOOK OF NEW ZEALAND SCIENCE, edited by Rebecca Priestley (Awa Press, $48) . It was a good year for overviews of New Zealand science, with not only this anthology but also the accessible, lavishly illustrated brief biographies of ATOMS, DINOSAURS & DNA: 68 GREAT NEW ZEALAND SCIENTISTS (Random House, $34.99) , co-edited by Priestley and Veronika Meduna. The Awa book showcases more than a third of the same scientists, giving them the opportunity to speak for themselves in short pieces and extracts. There's a healthy smattering of poetry, too, from Allen Curnow, Peter Bland and Chris Orsman, among others.

BOOK SELF: THE READER AS WRITER AND THE WRITER AS CRITIC, by CK Stead (AUP, $39.99). A series of essays, journalistic articles, travel pieces and diary notes that can be read as a kind of autobiography. As such, its structure is unorthodox, and, tellingly, it is an intellectual and artistic autobiography rather than a "personal" one. But it is the story of a remarkably interesting New Zealand mind: one that expresses itself with clarity, logical argument and respect for literary and aesthetic values - and that never pulls its punches.

GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR, by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton, $37) . In part a revisitation - of the 1974 journey he took for his best-known book, The Great Railway Bazaar - Ghost Train is a culmination, too, perhaps Theroux's finest work. You have to like the man to travel with him for this distance, over this many pages - and he can be dry, pricklish and ironic. But he's no cynic, which is the usual and least accurate of the charges laid against him. He's a romantic. He never gives up looking. His intermittent disgust, his aggravation, his discontent are all a function of hope.

GOING AS FAR AS I CAN: THE ULTIMATE TRAVEL BOOK, by Duncan Fallowell (Profile, $35). What a brouhaha this belligerent camp caused. Englishman Fallowell is a sensualist. His pleasures include rosé, ornate architecture and sex with young men. In Going as Far as I Can, he recounts his pursuit of such pleasures in New Zealand. He is not the least worried about giving offence. He has a dandy's arrogance, a disdain for the "suppurating, copulating mob". Multiculturalism, Kiwis' dress sense, Peter Jackson - all and more cop it. On New Zealand women: "Lots of them have lesbian haircuts and they don't do cleavage." And on it goes. Full of flaws and silly generalisations, this book is nonetheless to be relished.

HOW FICTION WORKS, by James Wood (Jonathan Cape, $39.99). The greatest literary critic of his generation - and arguably working today - decided: "Everyone knows what I don't like - so what do I like, and why do I like it?" How Fiction Works is the result, a brilliant breakdown of the mechanics of the novel. No serious reader should be without it; it will make you read afresh. And isn't it telling how Wood remembers reading Ford Madox Ford's The English Novel as a teenager yet - in our proof copy at least - mistitles a Boney M song Brown Girl in the Rain? His was a childhood better spent than that of most of us.

THE LOVE SCHOOL: PERSONAL ESSAYS, by Elizabeth Knox (VUP, $35). Knox has, like CK Stead, a remarkably interesting mind, and the essays here offer freewheeling access to it, with candid clues of both a biographical and literary nature (including the complex and pivotal imaginary games played over many years with her sisters and friends). You will learn much about the origins and methods of Knox's writing, and her "delight in being someone else" in her fiction, but perhaps the greatest pleasure the book affords is the way she uses language to reclaim the past, to claim the present - "There's a challenge in packing each new sight, sound, smell, sensation in language before storing it in your memory."

REAPPRAISALS: REFLECTIONS ON THE FORGOTTEN TWENTIETH CENTURY, by Tony Judt (William Heinemann, $64). Twenty-five essays written over 12 years and showcasing the varied interests of Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and named as one of the world's top 100 intellectuals in a Foreign Policy/Prospect survey this year. He is also one of the most controversial, thanks to his writing on Israel and American foreign policy in the Middle East - though his 2003 Israel: The Alternative (in which he proposed that the exclusively Jewish state be replaced by a bi-national one of Jews and Palestinians) is conspicuously absent here.

THE REST IS NOISE: LISTENING TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, by Alex Ross (Fourth Estate, $64.99) . New Yorker critic Ross' 624-page behemoth is best read adagio ma non troppo, for it is a book of many treasures. Names, dates, places, theories, musical descriptions, politics and current events are skilfully woven together in what is essentially a history of the 20th century sieved through the ears of its composers. That the book can be understood by someone who has never had a close encounter with an adagio ma non troppo is one of its principal charms and accomplishments. Another is Ross' vivid imagery: at the height of bop, we learn, "electric strings of notes lashed around like downed power lines on wet pavements".

Poetry

COLLECTED POEMS 1951-2006, by CK Stead (AUP, $59.99) . This is the collection that admirers of Stead's poetry have been waiting for. Sumptuously presented, it offers us the opportunity to chart the development of one of our most distinctive poetic voices. Now playful, now profound, equally engaged with the word and the world, these poems amply fulfil the old injunction to "make it new". Characteristically incisive notes and a selection of early fugitive pieces complete the package. Collected Poems 1951-2006 is what a collected poems should be: a crowning achievement.

DOUBTLESS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, by Sam Hunt (Craig Potton, $29.99) . Doubtless doesn't so much tone down the delinquent moments of Hunt in performance as introduce a wry self-awareness of the poet as survivor. Too quick on the uptake to be a period piece, he is nevertheless in this book often an elegist and memorialist of the recent past. With his radar ear attuned to the Kiwi vernacular, he is able to plumb the depths that lurk in seemingly straightforward phrases. And although the rich rumble of his voice speaks volumes from the stage, there's a different kind of richness to be had on the page. He is a poet who packs a remarkable amount into each spare phrase, offering complexity of sensation while cultivating the illusion of simplicity.

THE END OF ATLANTIC CITY, by David Beach (VUP, $25) . The winner of this year's International Institute of Modern Letters' Prize in Modern Letters for an emerging New Zealand writer is a kind of anti-poet, reflexively suspicious of language's ability to dazzle or seduce and thriving on the disjunction between high-flown literary associations and the insistently prosaic. It's a complex position to occupy, but with The End of Atlantic City and his first book, Abandoned Novel, Beach has established himself as one of New Zealand poetry's most original voices.

A GOOD HANDFUL: GREAT NEW ZEALAND POEMS ABOUT SEX, edited by Stu Bagby (AUP, $27.99). It sounds like a punchline to a "shortest book in the world" joke, like Hilarious Rugby Songs or The Complete Sentences of George Bush. And, indeed, the vast majority of poems in A Good Handful are more about relationships than sex per se, or approach sex obliquely. But for all that it is more Philip Larkin than the Earl of Rochester and the Age of the Libertine, this is a very enjoyable collection, and you can always rely on Hone Tuwhare for some genuine erotic gusto: "nipples enlarged/but firm like/mumbled pebbles".

THE LAKES OF MARS, by Chris Orsman (AUP, $24.99). Orsman's 1998 experience in Antarctica is clearly still working away, potent in his psyche. There are a few little surges of Tennysonian and biblical overdrive in these poems, but these quirks are more than countered by the clarity of the observations of nature. Orsman unpicks the complexity of ice; he takes us inside the very substance of the place. You feel like you might be there.

MR MAUI'S MONOLOGUES, by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, $24.99). Bland reacquaints us with the dramatic monologues of an earlier persona, Mr Maui. The trickster returns from the 1970s with updates on death, the ageing process and other trials of life. Whether it is corrupt generals, postmodern theorists or his own failing attempts to keep fit, Mr Maui is not afraid to confront human limitations with a wry smile, while locating the "idiot joy" to be found in tides of light on the abandoned hulls of boats. A recent cancer survivor, Bland is a celebrant of the passing moment; evanescence is his overriding subject.

MOONLIGHT: NEW ZEALAND POEMS ON DEATH AND DYING, edited by Andrew Johnston (Godwit, $36.99); SWINGS + ROUNDABOUTS: POEMS ON PARENTHOOD, edited by Emma Neale, with photography by Mark Smith (Godwit, $36.99). All human life (and death) could be found in New Zealand poetry anthologies in 2008. Johnston and Neale rise above the snares of trite consolation and cheap sentimentality to produce volumes that are strikingly original in their conception and constantly engaging and thought-provoking in their execution. As well as homegrown poets, Neale draws upon a smattering of Australians and other Anglophone voices, including Seamus Heaney no less.

THE ROCKY SHORE, by Jenny Bornholdt (VUP, $25) . These gentle poems lull us with a conversational style that often catalogues the quotidian and the apparently inconsequential. Yet there's a way in which the casual, chatty, journal-like sections work to disarm the reader deliberately. They heighten both the cruel invasions of crisis and loss and the sweet bursts of insight that suddenly surge forward from the page, carried on bright image or extended metaphor. These six long poems "climb on down" under the surface of things to touch the wellsprings of feeling and memory.

Memoirs and letters

AS IF RUNNING ON AIR: THE JOURNALS OF JACK LOVELOCK, edited by David Colquhoun (Craig Potton, $49.99) . If you want to get beyond the myths surrounding Lovelock, you probably need to go directly to the man himself, and Colquhoun's wonderfully presented edition of his journals allows you to do just that. Colquhoun and Craig Potton have done Lovelock proud, framing the journals with lots of supporting context in a generously illustrated, elegantly designed hardback. Be warned, though, especially if your interest is only casual: stripped of the surrounding myths, Lovelock was almost entirely about the track, and his journals reflect that (ie, there are an awful lot of lap times).

AT THE END OF DARWIN ROAD: A MEMOIR, by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, $34.99). Despite the often emotive content of At the End of Darwin Road, our reviewer detected an air of detachment, the sense of something reined in. But even if she doesn't dig as deeply as some might wish, Kidman reveals much of herself in this first volume of memoir, which concludes with the publication and success of her first novel. Not least is the struggle to sustain her writing through domestic and financial difficulties and bouts of depression. The depiction of Kidman's early childhood in the 1940s is especially evocative, but the book is as much a social record as a personal and literary one, whether of the frustrations of a suburban housewife in 1960s Rotorua or the growth of feminist consciousness in the 1970s.

THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD: VOLUME FIVE - 1922, edited by Vincent O'Sullivan and Margaret Scott (Oxford University Press, $220) . During her peripatetic and often lonely life, Mansfield sometimes writes joyfully in a letter about the arrival by post of a book to keep her company. Readers of the first four volumes of her letters, published between 1984 and 1996, can feel similar elation on the publication of the long-awaited fifth volume. Although Mansfield's career was virtually over by 1922, the vibrancy of her writing in these letters - the glinting wit, the sharply etched descriptions, the tenderness and unsparing intelligence - runs counter to the story of incurable disease that they chart.

GETTING THERE: AN AUTOBIO-GRAPHY, by Barbara Anderson (VUP, $50) . Anderson's unsentimental, lively memoir explores a three-part life: a between-the-wars Hawke's Bay youth, its places, people and social mores evoked in delicious detail; the international wanderings of a Navy wife; and a stellar late-blooming career as a novelist, playwright and short-story writer, launched when she published her first book at 63. The book is by turns affecting and funny, strongest when conjuring up the now-distant past and a society that was both uptight and optimistic.

INTO THE WIDER WORLD: A BACK COUNTRY MISCELLANY, by Brian Turner (Godwit, $44.99). This is a rather beautiful book that also includes superb images by photographer Gilbert van Reenen and artist Grahame Sydney. Turner has a credibility and vocabulary honed over 50 years of river experience, and he has a language, too, for tussock and wind, clouds, and the spirit of the Otago landscape. These things alone make an often stimulating read. What makes him more interesting still is that his love is also his affliction. Many of these essays are a lament. The fish aren't what they were. The rivers aren't. The landscape itself is threatened.

ME CHEETA: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by Cheeta (Fourth Estate, $34.99) . "Cruelty to apes in the name of entertainment is obscene and must stop, though of course it can lead to some absolutely tremendous movies, and I personally had a wonderful time in Hollywood," sums up this witty and unexpectedly moving autobiography of Cheeta, Tarzan co-star and, at 76, the world's oldest recorded chimp. Cheeta reveals all, from his opinions of screen stars such as Deanna Durbin ("sexually insatiable") and Rex Harrison ("a scumbag") to lurid details of his late-night assignations in Universal Studios' aptly named petting zoo.

MIRACLES OF LIFE: SHANGHAI TO SHEPPERTON, by JG Ballard (Fourth Estate, $24.99) . The miracles of the title are Ballard's three children and two grandchildren, who he says "take away the fear of death" after a diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer. Shanghai is where Ballard enjoyed a blissfully ignorant idyllic childhood in the 1930s before being incarcerated in a detention centre during World War II - the subject of his best-known but most atypical novel, Empire of the Sun, and the source, he writes here, of the trademark images of his sci-fi: drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels and nightclubs, deserted runways, flooded rivers.

NATIVE WIT, by Hamish Keith (Godwit, $44.99) . Keith brings disarming honesty to the fact that he took maximum advantage of his ability to lark around, experiment, make mistakes and sometimes make a total prat of himself. Underpinning all this is a person serious about a life in art and who made the decision to talk and write about it rather than make it. Keith became one of our most respected, if sometimes disliked, arts writers and commentators. Disliked, perhaps, because he has the effrontery to neither suffer fools nor mince words. Native Wit is a book that could only have been written in, and about New Zealand, by an arts writer so optimistically - and unsentimentally - devoted to his homeland.

NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF, by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, $59.99) . Barnes began the year with this meditation on death; by the end of it, he had lost his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, to a brain tumour. Woven into Barnes' digressive, chatty philosophical essay are coronets of little stories: about himself as a boy, about his friends, other writers, composers, about music, medicine, sport and his grandparents. His musings on the big question of Being or Not-Being aren't as gripping as the accumulation of riveting details about the many particular ways in which people actually die. And the book is at its most engaging when, like writer Alphonse Daudet, whom he quotes, he is not bidding farewell to, but remembering, "wife, family, the things of the heart".

STREET WITHOUT A NAME: CHILDHOOD AND OTHER MISADVENTURES IN BULGARIA, by Kapka Kassabova (Penguin, $28) . After years of roaming the world, a gentle poet of rootlessness, Kassabova finally confronts the past the needles her "like an infirm relative calling out from a darkened room at the back of the house". Street Without a Name is really two books in one. The first half reconstructs Kassabova's childhood up to the fall of communism, and her departure for "two small accidental splashes of land at the bottom of the world"; in the second half, she returns to Bulgaria as an adult, her ambivalent travels revealing a place that is familiar and yet utterly strange.

Biography

THE BOLTER: IDINA SACKVILLE, THE WOMAN WHO SCANDALISED 1920S SOCIETY AND BECAME WHITE MISCHIEF'S INFAMOUS SEDUCTRESS, by Frances Osborne (Virago, $37.99) . Why can't New Zealand politiians have racy in-laws like this? Sackville is the great-grandmother of Osborne, wife of British Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Hers was a life "little hampered by convention", as a disapproving Daily Express puts it. She was sexually insatiable; five times married and five times divorced, yet he greatest offence to an emphatically upper-cased Society was not her adulterous shenanigans but that she conducted them so openly, rather than under the hypocritical cover favoured by her peers (and, indeed, Peers). A sympathetic portrait that captures a lost age and class.

BOMB, BOOK AND COMPASS: JOSEPH NEEDHAM AND THE GREAT SECRETS OF CHINA, by Simon Winchester (Penguin/Viking, $40) . A fascinating account of the extraordinary career of Cambridge biochemist Needham, who, in his magnum opus Science and Civilisation in China, overturned forever assumptions that world-changing inventions were exclusive to the West. Infused with a sense of wonder, vitality and adventure, Winchester's biography resonates with some of his eccentric subject's own remarkable energy.

FACING THE MUSIC: CHARLES BAEYERTZ AND THE TRIAD, by Joanna Woods (Otago, $45) . The Triad was a journal for the arts that ran for 32 years from 1893 under the editorship of Baeyertz, a marvel of New Zealand journalism whom Robin Hyde described as "rather excitingly rude to almost everyone". Sample rudeness: "What in the name of common sense does this mean? Rubbish, also bunkum and bosh." Or: "Reason stands aghast to see such turgid verbiage committed to print." And people think CK Stead is a tough critic. Woods' meticulously researched and wonderfully readable biography shows us a society that was enthusiastically cultured in a far more democratic way than later generations, where the press - combative, arrogant, prescriptive, subversive, educative - was central.

HEAPHY, by Iain Sharp (AUP, $65) . An obvious master with pen and brush, Charles Heaphy had the ability to upskill himself to become an instant expert on convenient subjects, which also qualified him as a bullshit artist. He was a complex and contradictory individual, and a perpetual adventurer who craved recognition. Sharp has scoured sources with a forensic intensity in this heroic - and handsomely presented - attempt to unravel his subject. He concludes by reviewing history's treatment of the man, and suggests his paintings are worthy of further discussion. Those images may no longer entice immigrants from the Sussex Downs to Johnsonville or Geraldine, but they still have the power to transport us to another time and place.

JOHN LENNON: THE LIFE, by Philip Norman (HarperCollins, $36.99) . Yoko Ono now says Norman has been "mean to John" but the author of Shout: The Beatles in their Generation had her cooperation and remarkable access to son Sean, family, friends and many who have seldom, if ever, spoken about Lennon. The result is a more measured and insightful counterbalance to Albert Goldman's scurrilous and similarly brick-sized The Lives of John Lennon. Norman's is a rounded portrait of a complex man, whose sexual desires saturate the book's pages, along with his charm, quick humour and rare creativity.

RITA ANGUS: AN ARTIST'S LIFE, by Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa, $69.99) . This was Angus' year with a retrospective at Te Papa (now touring) to mark the centenary of her birth and this biography by the exhibition's curator. For those not sated by the plentiful paintings in An Artist's Life, there is also a sumptuous exhibition catalogue, RITA ANGUS: LIVE & VISION (Te Papa, $75). Because it was filled with hurt and rejection (some of t real and some imagined), a hopeless love, poverty and much paranoia, it would be easy to see Angus' life as tragic. But when you look at her art, that is the life - grand, triumphant and glorious. And Trevelyan brings us to it in a powerful, compelling and elegant way, in one of the best biographies yet written of a New Zealand artist.

UNCOMMON ARRANGEMENTS: SEVEN PORTRAITS OF MARRIED LIFE IN LONDON LITERARY CIRCLES 1920-1939, by Katie Roiphe (Virago Papa, $39.99) . Roiphe began reading about these couples to make sense of her own failed marriage. Among the complex relationships she examines are those of Vanessa and Clive Bell, Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, HG and Jane Wells and Vera Brattain and George Gordon Caitlin. Reacting against Victorian hypocrisy, the unions are governed by reason rather than convention - experiments in what Mansfield called "marriage a la mode".

History

ANONYMITY: A SECRET HISTORY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE, by John Mullan (Faber and Faber, $39.99) . In an age when authors - or publishers on their behalf - crave attention, not to say celebrity, it seems impossible to imagine a time when the opposite was the case: when the craved - and were permitted - anonymity. Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray all at times hid beneath the cloak. Not one of Jane Austen's novels was published under her name during her lifetime. The proprieties of the era dictated women's books were "By a Lady" or more daringly "By a young Lady". The motives for, and consequences of, anonymity were many and varied and are a fascinating nook of literary history.

DIGGERS, HATTERS & WHORES: THE STORY OF THE NEW ZEALAND GOLD RUSHES, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (Random House, $55) . Eldred-Grigg has produced an impressive tome by any standards, brilliantly illustrated with colour artworks, thoroughly researched and completely accessible. He cuts through school-age myths of "bright fine gold" to offer a more colourful and entertaining insight into frontier age gold fever - a transient, visceral society of greed, vice, sex and drunken sprees. He does so while floating his narrative on a lyrical kaleidoscope of impressions that reflects an abstraction seldom seen in New Zealand writing - especially its history writing.

A DISTANT FEAST: THE ORIGINS OF NEW ZEALAND'S CUISINE, by Tony Simpson (Godwit, $49.99) . Food lovers will enjoy Simpson's updated and beautifully illustrated 1999 history, although there will be few takers for his recipe for stewed possum ("remove the fatty gland from under its tail", etc). A more informal look at our culinary history comes from David Veart's entertaining FIRST CATCH YOUR WEKA: A STORY OF NEW ZEALAND COOKING (AUP, $49.99) based on Veart's extensive collection of cookbooks. Also recommended is LADIES, A PLATE: TRADITIONAL HOEM BAKING (Penguin, $45), in what Alexa Johnston offers what she considers definitive versions of Kiwi classics. A poignant note is set by Scott's Farewell Square, created in honour of Captain Robert Falcon Scott when he set out on his last doomed voyage from Dunedin to Antarctica. A few pieces of this hefty slice in the tins and he might have made it home.

THE FACE OF WAR: NEW ZEALAND'S GREAT WAR PHOTOGRAPHY, by Sandy Callister (AUP, $49.99); IMAGES OF WAR: WORLD WAR ONE - A PHOTOGRAPHIC RECORD OF NEW ZEALANDERS AT WAR 1914-1918, by Glyn Harper and Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum (HarperCollins, $59.99). A beneficial coincidence of publishing this year brought these complementary books. The first wears uts academic origins a little heavily, but is a fascinating contemplation of war photography in its widest sense: from official and soldiers' own images taken on the battlefield, to the studio portraits of soldiers before they left and the ones they carried of loved ones back home, to the rolls of honour newspapers published of casualties, to images recording the work of New Zealand's pioneering plastic surgeons. Harper's book, meanwhile, expands on the images in Callister's more text driven account with 300plus pages of photographs.

MATES & LOVERS: A HISTORY OF GAY NEW ZEALAND, by Chris Brickell (Godwit, $49.99) . Brickell has scoured archives and personal collections, and come up with some real gems, not least the photographs that are a key source in this lavishly illustrated book, charting a hidden subculture of meeting places spread across the country and all social classes. He is one of the few researchers granted access to little studied records of court cases where men fell foul of the law prior to the decriminalisation fo homosexuality in 1986, and his analysis, together with newspaper reports and other sources, creates a vivid picture of homosexual life.

THE PAVLOVA STORY: A SLICE OF NEW ZEALAND'S CULINARY HISTORY, by Helen Leach (Otago, $40) . Leach doesn't bother herself with who was first, us or the Australians,: there's no definitive answer, she says, and besides, recipes are not created, they evolve. Nonetheless, more petty souls will be pleased to know that hidden in a timeline at the back of this fabulously illustrated book is evidence that it was, indeed, us. Yes! Everything you wanted to know about the pav but were afraid to ask is in the book, and more besides, with Leach leading us down the side roads of associated social history, form wartime rationing to the demise of afternoon tea. For shame.

Politics and journalism

THE CONSCIENCE OF A LIBERAL: RECLAIMING AMERICA FROM THE RIGHT, by Paul Krugman (Penguin/Allen Lane, $70) . Krugman won the Nobel Prize of Economics this year "for his analysis of trade patterns of location of economic activity". But it's as a twice weekly New York Times columnist and outspoken critic of George W Bush that he's best known. The Conscience of a Liberal calls for US leaders to revive the commitment to income equality of Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal and institute universal health coverage. It offers both a brilliantly lucid account of economic history and a practical blueprint for Barack Obama's new administration.

FLAT EARTH NEWS, by Nick Davies (Vintage, $27.99) . Davies, an award winning reporter for the Guardian, has broken Fleet Street's unwritten rule: "Dog does not eat dog". What a feast he has, too. Meticulously researched and compelling - not to say alarming - his book catalogues example after example, proving that much of what appears in several of the most respected newspapers on the planet is distortion, propaganda, and worse - plain wrong. That is, flat earth news: the product of journalists who have become churnalists - churning out stories based on unchecked wire stories and press releases, working in newsrooms decimated by cutbacks.

WORKING WITH DAVID: INSIDE THE LANGE CABINET, by Michael Bassett (Hodder Moa, $59.99) . It's hardly the Alan Clark diaries, and many dispute its interpretation of event (not least Margaret Pope,) but political junkies will not want to miss the fruits of Bassett's assiduous note-taking during the bitter battles of the fourth Labour Government. Unashamedly in the camp of Roger Douglas and his followers, Bassett nonetheless adds flesh to the bones of the newspaper reports of the period, with more than 500 pages of gossip, anecdotes and snapshots of the internal warfare.

Picture books

ART ICONS OF NEW ZEALAND: LINES IN THE SAND, by Oliver Stead (David Bateman, $49.99) . The images, as the title suggests, are familiar ones, though, in an age when it is so overused, Stead goes to great effort to tease out the many possibilities of the word "icon", both in his selection and his introduction. With a page of commentary alongside each image, this is as good a one-stop primer for New Zealand art as you could wish for - and a chance to marvel at Sam Hunt circa 1978 in a Robin White painting where it's entirely possible he's wearing the same pair of jeans he is today.

THE CELLULOID CIRCUS: THE HEYDAY OF THE NEW ZEALAND PICTURE THEATRE, by Wayne Brittenden (Godwit, $49.99) . This book is as much fun as a night out at the pictures used to be, a reminder of the time when going to the cinema had a sense of occasion - a sense due in no small part to the fittings and architectural splendour of the cinemas themselves (recorded here in wonderful black and white images taken the length and breadth of the land). It was a time when, as Brittenden writes: "Every visit was an event."

DANCE: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF DANCE IN NEW ZEALAND, by Tara Janh-Werner (Random House, $69.99). "I have come to believe that human beings need beauty and communication. They need dancers to leap for them," Jahn-Werner quotes Douglas Wright at the conclusion of a book that features more than 100 years of dancers - visiting and as time goes on increasingly local - leaping for us. The visual record is extensive (if at times variable in quality) and the best of the images make you yearn to have been there, from a Makeriti concert party performance circa 1900 to 1989's How on Earth or any of the other works by Wright himself.

FIAT LUX, by Andrew Ross (VUP, $50). In Ross' photographs, Wellington becomes the naked city, with its old plumbing, dusty wiring and dirty linen literally exposed. There's surrealism in the way electrical cables seem arrested in the act of writing. You get a sense of a phantasmal city, a spirit city, the city as an index of the hidden - only its cache of secret objects are actually things in plain sight: stained walls, rusty roofs, dented roller doors...

HOTERE, by Ralph Hotere with Kriselle Baker and Vincent O'Sullivan (Ron Sang Publications, $195). it isn't cheap, but then it isn't like many other art books. (One exception being John Drawbridge, released this year from the same publisher - a relative snip at $165). Hotere is as complete a retrospective as is imaginable, featuring 240 paintings sourced from private and public collections, reproduced on the best quality paper, with foldouts for the larger works. There are essays by art historian Baker and O'Sullivan, who is writing a biography of Hotere. But unlike all those art books that provide commentaries for each work: "This book aims to promote what always [Hotere] has insisted on - anything to be said about the paintings is said in the painting of them. If they seem to pose questions, the answer is in the looking."

IN SEARCH OF PARADISE: ARTISTS AND WRITERS IN THE COLONIAL SOUTH PACIFIC, by Graeme Lay (Godwit, $90). Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan rounded Cape Horn in 1520 and the first outsiders sailed upon the Pacific. Others followed, mesmerising Europe with tales of their adventures. Several centuries of such accounts have been combed and combined for the lavishly illustrated In Search of Paradise, Lay's rich and wideranging tribute to an "elusive dream". More a selection of personal insights than a critical study, this book opens windows on experiences of the world's largest ocean.

LONG LIVE THE MODERN; NEW ZEALAND'S NEW ARCHITECTURE 1904-1984, edited by Julia Gatley (AUP, $65). "Some of New Zealand's ugliest buildings and projects are praised", was how the New Zealand Herald greeted this book. It seems that some people just don't - and won't - get it. For those who do, or are open to persuasion, this is an essential purchase: photographs of 180 buildings with text by an array of more than 40 academics, architects, historians, and heritage consultants. And you know what, we don't care what the Herald says - we rather like Bulls' concrete water tower, too.

NEW ZEALAND PORTRAITS by Richard Wolfe (Penguin/Viking, $80). in one of the two essays introducing his superlative survey, Wolfe charts the highs and lows of this country's portraiture - or rather, the lows and highs and lows, for our early art history was dominated by the landscape, while the future is threatened, he warns, by "the apparent lack of emphases now given to the discipline of figure painting in this country's art schools." This book at least should fire up a few imaginations, with more than 80 paintings, each accompanied by a page long commentary. The stylistic diversity is especially inspiring; a mix of the familiar and gratifyingly unfamiliar, including a healthy 19 images from the 21st century.

THE SEUFFERT LEGACY: NEW ZEALAND COLONIAL MASTER CRAFTSMEN by Brian Peet (Icarus, $95). Prices for furniture made by Anton Seuffert and sons William, Albert and Carl Pet soar at auction, and reading Peet's book you can see why. Peet is descended from Seuffert's daughter Sophie and spent 15 years piecing together family history and hunting down and photographing surviving pieces of his ancestors' craft. His clear, glowing images of their masterly tables, boxes and bureaux and the cathedral like Gothic bookcase made for Queen Victoria are a major strength of this elegant and impressive volume.

WHITE SILENCE: GRAHAME SYDNEY'S ANTARCTICA by Grahame Sydney (Penguin/Viking, $115). Sydney brings to photography and Antarctica the same sublime sense of composition with which he paints Central Otago. He had planned to paint Antarctica, too, working from his usual pencil studies gathered in the field - "but quickly realised that the dry, icy atmosphere would make sitting still with fingers exposed a virtual impossibility". We may yet see paintings worked from these images, but in the meantime Sydney takes his place in a photographic lineage that dates back to early exploration team members Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley, to whom he pays tribute in a long, thoughtful introduction. After the colour and noise of the above 99 books, settle down to the calm of White Silence.

The books of the year were selected by Graham Beattie, Diane Brown, Anthony Byrt, Bernard Carpinter, Kiran Dass, Frances Edmond, David Eggleton, Jolisa Gracewood, David Hall, Siobhan Harvey, David Hill, Jeffrey Papamoa Holman, Kapka Kassabova, David Larsen, Gavin McLean, James McNeish, Paula Morris, Ben Naparstek, Emma Neale, Philip Norman, Louise O'Brien, Mark peters, Rebecca Priestley, Kevin Rabalais, Anna Rogers, Elspeth Sandys, Guy Somerset, Denis Welch, Dale Williams, Matthew Wright and Bianca Zander.

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