100 Best Books of 2011

by Listener Archive / 10 December, 2011
For gift-giving or holiday reading, Arts & Books editor Guy Somerset and the Listener’s team of reviewers list the year’s top reads.


ANATOMY OF A DISAPPEARANCE, by Hisham Matar (Penguin/Viking, $40). Propitious timing saw exiled Libyan Matar publish this follow-up to his Man Booker Prize finalist, In the Company of Men, shortly before the revolution that eventually ousted Muammar Gaddafi. It tells of a 14-year-old boy whose father is taken by secret police one night in Geneva, as Matar’s was in Cairo in 1990, never to be seen by his family again.

AT LAST, by Edward St Aubyn (Picador, $39.99). The fifth and final Patrick Melrose novel ought to have been a shoo-in for the Man Booker Prize shortlist but, controversially, not this year. It’s not strictly necessary to have read the preceding novels, but half the considerable pleasure of At Last comes from how our narrator and his eye-wateringly dysfunctional family and social circle have changed as they gather for the funeral of his gorgon of a mother, who even in her coffin hangs over proceedings like a cloud of gin fumes.

AUGUST, by Bernard Beckett (Text, $30). “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe,” wrote St Augustine. The quote and its
implications, contradictions and speaker sit at the heart of August, a deeply philosophical allegorical novel, set in a dystopian landscape, that extends Beckett’s examination of creed, knowledge and scientific affairs in his teen-fiction Genesis and non-fiction Falling for Science.

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, by SJ Watson (Text, $40). Identity is a key theme – how do you know who you are if you can’t remember your life? – in this top-class psychological thriller. A woman wakes up each morning next to a man she does not know, who tells her he is her husband, that she lost her memory after being hit by a car 25 years ago and that each night she forgets what she learnt the previous day. But then she starts to recover her memory and discovers discrepancies in what he has been telling her …

BOUND, by Vanda Symon (Penguin, $30). Symon is New Zealand’s contemporary Queen of Crime, heir to Ngaio Marsh. A brutal home invasion opens her fourth and best Sam Shephard novel. A dodgy businessman is shot, his wife – tied to a chair – watches him die. Dunedin CID target two suspected cop killers, but Shephard is unsure, and investigates elsewhere while juggling personal and professional conundrums. Superlative storytelling packed with vivid scenes, touches of humour, and one of the most engaging heroines around.

CALEB’S CROSSING, by Geraldine Brooks (Fourth Estate, $39.99). Based on the true story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, Brooks’s novel is narrated by a dutiful minister’s daughter who befriends Caleb and later accompanies him and her brother to college – but as an indentured servant. This is a sad, classic tale, told with persuasive charm – not just, in the girl’s words, “a dissonant and tragical lament”, but a fully conjured vision of a lost world.

CARIBOU ISLAND, by David Vann (Penguin/Viking, $30). Suicide is the tragic motif in this prequel to Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, as his characters battle to find light and promise in an Alaskan coastal frontier that is “the end of a world, a place of exile”. His powerful restrained prose masterfully captures the brutal majesty of the state once known as “Seward’s Folly”.

THE CAT’S TABLE, by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape, $34.99). Unlike Ondaatje’s category-defying last novel, Divisadero, The Cat’s Table doesn’t strain too hard against the boundaries of the genre. A fictional version of the sea voyage the author took as an 11-year-old from Ceylon to England (although almost nothing from his own journey is included), it is compulsively readable and often very funny, dabbles in the picaresque and flirts with an exhilarating magic realism.

THE CONDUCTOR, by Sarah Quigley (Vintage, $39.99, including CD). Set in 1941-42 and based on Shostakovich’s composition of his Leningrad Symphony and its eventual performance in the besieged city, this novel is nonetheless called The Conductor not The Composer, and once Shostakovich flees the city its focus shifts to Karl Eliasberg, a man of modest talents desperately summoning strength and self-belief (and inspiring others to the same) in an attempt to buttress art against the barbarism all around.

THE CRY OF THE GO-AWAY BIRD, by Andrea Eames (Harvill Secker, $37.99). Eames shies away from neither the shortcomings of the whites – including her narrator – nor the actions of the blacks attacking them in this wonderful evocation of early 2000s Zimbabwe through the eyes of a teenage girl living on a farm with her mother and stepfather. What really makes the novel is Eames’s striking descriptive language and acute attention to detail.

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, by George RR Martin (Harper Voyager, $49.99). The fantasy event of the year; and also of last year; and also of … suffice to say, the latest volume in Martin’s uber-epic has been on the “due out any month now” list for so long that for some fans its eventual no-kidding publication was a little hard to process. Worth the wait? Oh yes, indeed. Beloved characters return, plots thicken, backs are stabbed. As enjoyable as the TV series is, the books are the thing.

DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY, by PD James (Faber and Faber, $36.99). “Let other pens dwell on death and misery,” said Jane Austen. James obliges with a sequel to Pride and Prejudice where arch-cad George Wickham outdoes himself by being tried for murder. You expect a well-researched, intricate and finely written mystery from James. More surprisingly, she also produces an unexpectedly moving string of variations on familiar characters instead of in-jokes for Janeites.

FEAST DAY OF FOOLS, by James Lee Burke (Orion, $37.99). Burke says this is his best book yet – which means, given the quality of his earlier work, it should be a masterpiece. It is. The near-desert landscape of South Texas, along the Mexican border, helps give a mythic quality to the story of small-town sheriff Hackberry Holland and his dealings with bandits, a Russian gangster, government agents and a psychotic killer called Preacher Jack Collins. Violent, but beautifully written.

THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ, by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape, $37.99). One hesitates to call this a love story because it’s more about desire and sex. And economics. Set significantly in the melancholy early 2000s, it examines and reflects on the financial and emotional fallout following the devastating crash and burn of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom. Enright writes with psychological and emotional insight, and observations that are explosively resonant. There’s no dreary moralising and the grief of her characters is tempered with wry wit. Blazingly superb.

FOSTERLING, by Emma Neale (Vintage, $29.99). Evoking the stories and fables of multiple traditions – of yeti, maero, Caliban and even Boo Radley – Fosterling is a fairy tale: a mysterious young stranger is rescued from the wilds of the West Coast, meets a fair maiden, and seeks to solve the riddle of his existence. Bu is childlike in his innocence, his unfamiliarity with the modern world and his vulnerability to exploitation, in what is a lyrical and nuanced exploration of social exile, the response to difference and the relationship between the individual and society.

KING OF THE BADGERS, by Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate, $36.99). Another of the novels whose omission from the Man Booker shortlist led to rancour. It’s a structurally daring, intelligent, super-sharp satire of contemporary Britain, set in a village invaded by middle-class baby-boomers who have forced up house prices and pushed out the locals. The insidious mantra of the town’s Neighbourhood Watch chairman – “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” – and the intrusive journalists that descend when a young girl disappears have added resonance in the light of the country’s phone-hacking scandal.

THE LARNACHS, by Owen Marshall (Vintage, $39.99). A compassionate and discreet fictional reworking of the true story of William Larnach, his marriage to third wife Conny and her scandalous affair with his son Douglas, culminating in William’s suicide in the Parliament buildings. Sensitive to the potential of the story to erupt into pure melodrama, Marshall pitches it perfectly, providing a moving reflection on the nature of love amid the social constraints of the time.

THE LAST WEREWOLF, by Glen Duncan (Text, $40). “Survive the bite and the Curse is yours,” lupine narrator Jake Marlowe tells us – but no one is surviving the bite and it looks like Marlowe’s the end of the line, bringing on “ontological vertigo” and existential crisis in a novel that is a serious literary exercise coloured with full-on sex and splatter components. Often brutal, often unhinged, wryly amusing and wickedly entertaining, it’s a gem likely to inspire a pack of imitators.

LUTHER: THE CALLING, by Neil Cross (Simon and Schuster, $35). Not your usual TV tie-in, this brutal yet brilliant prequel novel uncovers what brought DCI John Luther, a simmering volcano of a man, to the brink at the outset of the award-winning BBC series. Luther is a riveting “hero”, walking a tightrope between insight and insanity as he hunts a vicious killer and attempts to juggle personal dramas at work and home. Crisp prose drives an unflinching tale full of twists and shades of grey.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT, by Jeffrey Eugenides (Fourth Estate, $36.99). A return to form after Eugenides’s Middlesex (okay, it won the Pulitzer Prize, but what does that mean?). Here, he captures the early 1980s with the same affectionate acuity he did the 1970s in his debut, The Virgin Suicides. Set in America’s east coast, Europe and India, The Marriage Plot tracks Madeleine, a student of the decade’s modish French literary theory, her scientist boyfriend Leonard, and Mitchell, a theology student in unrequited love with Madeleine.

THE NIGHT CIRCUS, by Erin Morgenstern (Harvill Secker, $37.99). Morgenstern’s debut is a dark romantic fantasia, full of unexpected twists and ripe imagery. In the late 19th century, a magician challenges his rival to a duel, using their young apprentices as proxies. The venue: a travelling circus. The stakes and the victory conditions: secret, both from the apprentices and from us. The circus becomes a global sensation, the apprentices become mutually fixated and Morgenstern, most rewardingly, zigs whenever you think she’s going to zag.

1Q84: BOOKS ONE, TWO AND THREE, by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker, $55). Down the rabbit hole we go again with Murakami. The most anticipated novel of the year (in Japan, it sold a million copies in two months), 1Q84 is a mammoth and engaging story of love lost and found, and of tyranny, fear and moral vacillation, told with the hyper-clarity of a dream and the pace of a ripping good yarn.

OPEN CITY, by Teju Cole (Faber and Faber, $36.99). The attentiveness, eloquence and ease of writing are masterful in this fabulous postcolonial novel of New York City. Its narrator is a young Nigerian psychiatrist who has taken to wandering the streets of post-9/11 Manhattan. Despite the diary-like form and absence of conventional plotting, the grounded rhythms, international criss-crossings and account of the city’s layered history make this a compelling read.

OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY, by Justin Cartwright (Bloomsbury, $39.99). Cartwright’s send-up of the British banking industry is light relief and thoroughly good fun after recent serious books about the world’s financial meltdown. Credible, entertaining, often hilarious and sometimes unexpectedly compassionate, it’s a marvellous satire of British expectations of entitlement.

PAO, by Kerry Young (Bloomsbury, $36.99). Shortlisted for Britain’s Costa First Novel Award (the winner is announced on January 4), Pao is the story of the titular crime-lord protector of Chinatown in Kingston, Jamaica, over a period of 40 years. His conversational, slang-peppered first-person narration carries the book beautifully, in a nuanced, lively and original novel that is historical fiction done gloriously right.

PIGEON ENGLISH, by Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury, $36.99). A Man Booker finalist that satisfied this year’s judges’ quest for “readability” (a word that caused much offence among the literati, but which is essentially meaningless, readability being in the eye of the beholder: for some James Joyce is unreadable, for others John Grisham). Kelman’s debut is the story of an 11-year-old Ghanaian on a London housing estate who with his friend decides to catch the killer of a boy knifed outside a takeaway. It’s a harrowing but brilliant novel with a freshness of language, a soaring, heartfelt humour and a scintillating eye for current London.

THE QUALITY OF MERCY, by Barry Unsworth (Hutchinson, $37.99). The maestro prose-writer’s sequel to his 1993 Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger returns to his earlier theme of avarice and ambitious greed, but here the abolitionists are stirring and political and commercial appetites are finding it difficult to adapt to change. Unsworth is adept at spinning several narrative threads that ultimately converge towards denouement in a small mining town in County Durham where the true humanity of the story is revealed. He has a superlative feel for the marriage of historical context and human drama, while telling a moving and unsentimental story of the times in what is a near-perfect historical novel.

RANGATIRA, by Paula Morris (Penguin, $30). This novel is based on the 1863 visit to England by Morris’s Ngati Wai ancestor, Paratene Te Manu, as part of a tour by Maori organised by a Wesleyan named Jenkins. Morris adroitly manages the ambiguities of the tour promoters’ motivations, the paradoxical sophistication and naivety of the Maori on the one hand and the high-minded humanitarianism and gawping voyeurism of the British public on the other. Paratene is our lens and he’s a triumph of characterisation, his voice genial and flawlessly authentic.

REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic, $39.99). Based on his previous books, Stephenson is unlikely to do what you’d expect. Here, he pulls his fastest dodge yet, abandoning his usual invent-whole-new-genre, write-novel approach in favour of a simple, pacy airport thriller (it even has airports). But being Stephenson, he makes it 1044 pages long, and maintains a breakneck pace throughout. He should run out of gas; he never does. An exhilarating highwire walk. With online gamers and terrorists, naturally.

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING, by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, $34.99). After all the brouhaha with the Booker, it went to a quintessential Booker book, this perfectly formed 150-page novella in which death and deterioration are subtly interwoven with another Barnes constant, his fascination with memory and forgetting, with historical truth and individual versions thereof. Compressed, clever and complex, and packing a punch in its final revelations.

THE STRANGER’S CHILD, by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador, $39.99). The novel nominated by more people than any other for this 100 Best Books. It follows the events and stories that ripple out from the 1913 visit to an English country house by a Rupert Brooke-like poet, tracing the way history is made, memories are shaped and reputations are forged down through the century and into the next. The sex is more subdued than in earlier Hollinghurst novels, the narrative more diffuse, but Hollinghurst’s wit and prose are as polished as ever.

THERE BUT FOR THE, by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, $32). Smith’s beguiling, witty postmodern fables typically feature multiple and shifting points of view, as well as outsider, trickster characters who catapult into people’s lives and turn everything on its head. This latest centres around a dinner-party guest who locks himself in his hosts’ spare room and refuses to come out – for several months.

THE TIGER’S WIFE, by Téa Obreht (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $36.99). She was winner of this year’s Orange Prize and the youngest of the New Yorker’s “Top 20 Writers under 40”, but fortunately Obreht works hard to earn her lavish acclaim. Any way you read it, this magic-realist exploration of the deep roots and lingering legacy of war is an impressive debut. It wins you over not simply with its story but with the manner of its telling: a hypnotic assemblage of myths and fables, fairy tales and legends, curious characters and imagery.

AN UNCERTAIN PLACE, by Fred Vargas (Harvill Secker, $39.99). Eight-and-a-half pairs of shoes, each containing a sawn-off human foot, piled up outside London’s Highgate Cemetery; a Serbian village where the locals believe – not entirely without reason – in vampires … this Commissaire Adamsberg story is vintage Vargas: surprising, whimsical, intelligent, human and beautifully written.

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, by Jennifer Egan (Corsair, $24.99). Egan has written good novels before, including 2001’s Look at Me, but nothing to prepare us for the ambition and accomplishment of this near-perfect Pulitzer Prize winner. With the lightest of touches, she orchestrates the novel’s many intersections: of lives, of the worlds of music, PR and African dictatorships, of the past and present – all across a period from the 1970s to the near future. Yes, it does feature a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation; no, it doesn’t feel remotely forced.

WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT, by Sarah Winman (Headline Review, $36.99). Through rich prose and careful plotting, this cracking debut about close friendships explores the consequences of heroine Elly’s encounters with manipulative neighbour Golan, beguiling school pal Jenny and the articulate titular pet in anarchic 1970s North London. Advance to 21st-century New York and Winman uses the same beguiling language and structure to unravel Elly’s relationship with her quiet brother and to show how childhood’s wonders and misfortunes endure.

THE WRECKAGE, by Michael Robotham (Sphere, $39.99). The geopolitical thriller of the year, an ambitious, impressive tale that pierces the murk surrounding the global financial crisis and war in Iraq. A journalist living “outside the wire” in Baghdad uncovers missing millions in war funding, a London ex-cop is scammed, a petty thief steals a notebook from a banker, who disappears. Threads entwine secretive powerbrokers in big business and government. Tense storytelling with an authentic feel that grips emotionally as well as intellectually.

WULF, by Hamish Clayton (Penguin, $30). A few years ago, a mate of Clayton’s dared him to write a novel based on the Anglo-Saxon poem Wulf and Eadwacer; Wulf, Clayton’s extraordinary debut, is the result, in which he tells the story of the 1831 raid on his Kai Tahu enemies by Te Rauparaha (aka the Wolf), using an intense, incantory voice reminiscent of both Lloyd Jones’s The Book of Fame and JG Ballard. Haunting and highly original.

Short stories

BIRD NORTH, by Breton Dukes (VUP, $35). Confident, nuanced and unself­consciously local, this is an accomplished debut. Dukes’s earlier work in journals like Sport and Turbine gave some hint of what to expect: brief, stark sentences, uncompromising honesty in language and content, perfectly timed flashes of lyricism. To which the polished tales of Bird North add sudden contrasts and subtle confounding of expectations that demand careful reading and reward it handsomely.

DARK JELLY, by Alice Tawhai (Huia, $30). In these stories, Tawhai explores how her diverse range of characters distort their perceptions of the world in response to the darkness in their lives, existing in states of isolation, in altered – but not necessarily untruthful – versions of reality. It is a powerful and sustained survey of the many and varied states of darkness, with Tawhai offering an edgy collection of sensitively crafted character studies that are both unsettling and utterly compelling.

THE DESOLATION ANGEL, by Tim Wilson (VUP, $35). Wilson’s debut novel, Their Faces Were Shining, was one of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2010 and the 12 stories collected here show similar accomplishment in their wry humour and observation. There’s an urbane quality easy to credit to Wilson’s time in New York, but his remains a distinctly New Zealand voice, charting low-key suburban tragedy as effectively as the turmoil of long-distance corporate travel (“Suits”) or the dark parable of the title story.

THE TROUBLE WITH FIRE, by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, $36.99). Flames are the metaphor that link these 11 stories. Whether raging, dying or smouldering away ominously, the fires of passion, anger and desire represent the inner lives of a diverse range of characters, while the vibrant smells and sinuous movement of flames provide a beautifully sensual backdrop across the collection.


CHORDS & OTHER POEMS, by Sam Hunt (Craig Potton, $29.99). Anyone who has heard Hunt perform – which must be most of us – remembers The Voice, which, for all its bardic splendour, sometimes does his poems a disservice. Here, one is reminded again and again of the subtlety of his touch, the deftness and economy of his language, the ­unobtrusive craft.

COMING ASHORE, by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, $19.99). Bland turned 77 this year and was recipient of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry. Which begs the question, are these an old man’s poems? If you judge by content and themes, of course they are. But if you judge by pithiness of expression, sharpness of observation and keenness of wit, there’s no hardening of the arteries. These poems are bright as polished glass.

THE HILL OF WOOL, by Jenny Bornholdt (VUP, $25). Age-old themes, startlingly original imagery, precision of language: this is Bornholdt as we’ve always known her. The miracle is that with every collection she retains her voice, maintains her unique vision, sits steadfastly in her own poetic house – while always opening a new window and offering us a slightly different view.

KINGDOM ANIMALIA, by Janis Freegard (AUP, $24.99). Freegard’s first full-length collection orders its poems into classes, using the taxonomic categories invented by Carolus Linnaeus in the 1700s. Interspersed between these are prose poems that spiritedly imagine, and affectionately mock, events in Linnaeus’s life. Madcapping her way around – and pushing against – the categories, Freegard is equal parts jester and scientist.

THE MOVIE MAY BE SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT, by Vincent O’Sullivan (VUP, $30). Just a few pages into this collection you know you’re in the company of a master. The poems are so meaty, so pithy, so well-crafted. So damned good. These are the poems of a civilised man. An ironist who isn’t sardonic, a romantic who knows romanticism isn’t enough. The book is a treasure house.

SHIFT, by Rhian Gallagher (AUP, $24.99). Shift covers an impressive emotional arc: from the child’s view of mysterious adult domains; to the adolescent longing for elsewhere; to adult desire and loss; and the homing instinct, which brings its own moments of dissociation and strangeness. The poems are ­assiduously polished, spoken in a quiet key, and the cumulative effect can be eerie and moving. Confiding over the love of a woman, Shift achieves a remarkable ­balance between intimacy and reserve.

SMALL HOLES IN THE SILENCE: COLLECTED WORKS, by Hone Tuwhare (Godwit, $44.99). In person, Tuwhare could always out-Campbell John Campbell on the “marvellous/wonderful” front and his poems have the same attitude to the universe. He is our greatest poet of praise. If the natural world is there (and it always is), it is to be celebrated. If friends are there, they are to be talked to. If friends and lovers die, their loss is lamented in words of ­generous tribute. Change itself is a source of delight. Most of Tuwhare’s published poems are here as well as about a dozen previously uncollected pieces.

THICKET, by Anna Jackson (AUP, $24.99). With its title, one might expect Jackson’s fifth poetry collection to examine landscape, that New Zealand hobby horse; instead, the title is a springboard into a rich allegorical thicket of story­telling, family and feminism. It is inventive, satisfying stuff.

THE WASTELAND iPAD APP (Touch Press/Faber and Faber, $17.99, available from iTunes). Forget New Zealand company BookTrack’s silly and much-derided books with sound effects and music – here is the real future of digital ­publishing. Follow the poem while listening to it being read by TS Eliot (in 1933 and 1947, take your pick), Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen or Fiona Shaw. Switch between them from line to line, if you like. See the commentary on it by  Seamus Heaney, Paul Keegan, Jeanette Winterson and others. Read it alongside extensive annotations. View the original manuscript with Ezra Pound’s hand-written edits. There’s more, but aren’t you sold already?

Memoir & biography

BLIGH: WILLIAM BLIGH IN THE SOUTH SEAS, by Anne Salmond (Penguin/Viking, $65). A valuable addition to the many books about the sailor at the centre of the mutiny on the Bounty, this lengthy and detailed biography will long stand out as a scholarly work on which any new studies will be forced to rely. It cannot change the picture of an ill-tempered and often foul-mouthed commander, but it helps us to remember his skill as a navigator, and the world he moved in.

CHARLES DICKENS: A LIFE, by Claire Tomalin (Penguin/Viking, $50). The “inimitable” Dickens springs from the pages of Tomalin’s rich, authoritative biography. Enraged by his childhood hardship, Dickens was so driven he wrote, talked, walked and travelled himself into an early grave, leaving behind a secret young mistress, a cast-off wife, dozens of dependants and millions of desolate fans. This is the page-turning account of a complex, compelling man, a restless creative genius of super­human energy who could be both selflessly generous and remorselessly vindictive.

HOW TO LIVE: A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE IN ONE QUESTION AND TWENTY ATTEMPTS AT AN ANSWER, by Sarah Bakewell (Vintage, $29.99). First published overseas in 2010, this word-of-mouth slow-burner has become one of the most widely read and discussed books of 2011. It is astonishing how much Bakewell gets into it. It’s a life of Montaigne, an introduction to 16th-­century ideas and a thrilling defence of the essay as a necessary literary form. Witty and light-stepping, it is also ­(whisper it) an excellent self-help book for the philosophically inclined.

THE HUNGRY HEART: JOURNEYS WITH WILLIAM COLENSO, by Peter Wells (Vintage, $49.99). This is an impressively unconventional biography. Wells writes himself into the story of volatile missionary and printer Colenso both emotionally and by immersing himself in the landscapes his subject inhabited (hence the “journeys” subtitle). He takes risks when speculating about matters such as sexuality, but he carefully labels the process as such. The result is a warm, insightful and sparkling portrait of one of colonial New Zealand’s most complicated characters.

JANET FRAME: IN HER OWN WORDS, edited by Denis Harold and Pamela Gordon (Penguin, $42). The voice we hear in the non-fiction, interviews, speeches and letters of this collection is a far cry from the “stubborn myth” of a reclusive socially uncomfortable genius tainted with madness: Frame is self-deprecating, anxious and sometimes hurt by misunderstandings, yes, but also self-assured, passionate, driven and, most clearly, given to sly wit and ­generous humour.

STEVE JOBS, by Walter Isaacson (Little, Brown, $59.99). Anyone who marvelled at the click wheel on their iPod the first time they used it will enjoy this fascinating story of the man who in 1976 co-founded Apple in his parents’ garage. Jobs not only said that “a lot of the time people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”, but also proved it. In doing so, he made Apple the world’s most valuable company. This is an excellent biography of a man Isaacson portrays as a rude, obnoxious, self-­centred genius.

WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL?, by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape, $39.99). Winterson revisits the upbringing fictionalised in her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. If the book is a poignant exploration of the impacts of an unstable and often frightening childhood – and of adoption and loss and the quest to reclaim the lost – it’s also a detailed and affectionate portrait of northern English working-class life in the 1960s and 70s.


DAUGHTERS OF EREBUS, by Paul Holmes (Hodder Moa, $49.99). In over 400 well-crafted pages, Holmes gives us the story of the 1979 crash of flight TE-901 on Mt Erebus, interleaved with the stories of pilot Jim Collins’s wife and four daughters (and their appalling experience coping with the loss of a husband and father among the gyrations of subsequent blame) and of Royal Commissioner Justice Peter Mahon. He paints a compelling picture of real people and true emotion in a book as gripping as any novel.

A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 100 OBJECTS, by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane, $45). British Museum director MacGregor’s inspired BBC radio series – to be heard on Radio New Zealand National on Sunday afternoons – has deservedly become something of a phenomenon, spawning an all-singing, all-dancing website as well as this best-selling book. Like the series, the book goes from a 240BC Egyptian mummy to a 2010 Chinese solar-powered lamp and charger, although, given the times, the 99th item, a credit card issued in the United Arab Emirates, might have been a more apt final object.

THE LAST OF THE HUMAN FREEDOMS: THE FRENCH CIVILIANS WHO CHOSE TO HELP KIWIS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR, by Keren M Chiaroni (HarperCollins, $38.99). The strength of this book – war history at its best – is Chiaroni’s deft use of war as a device for exposing the essential nature of humanity. Why did some French put their lives on the line to save strangers? She buoys her theme on the words of concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl – that when all was lost there remained the “last of the human freedoms”, the choice of attitude.

LITTLE CRIMINALS: THE STORY OF A NEW ZEALAND BOYS’ HOME, by David Cohen (Random House, $39.99). ­Journalist Cohen zeroes in on the notorious Epuni Boys’ Home in Lower Hutt, where he himself was once sent, to recount the wider story of New Zealand’s discredited system of state-run residential institutions. ­Marshalling many of the figures involved and much research, Cohen keeps himself largely out of the story, but it is his distinctive voice that makes the book such a compelling read.

NEW ZEALAND BY DESIGN: A HISTORY OF NEW ZEALAND PRODUCT DESIGN, by Michael Smythe (Godwit, $65). An invaluable source book, copiously illustrated. You might need a magnifying glass to follow the font – bloody graphic designers! – but it is, despite its cautionary tales, an uplifting read and a timely corrective to the widespread pessimism about what we’re making of our country.

NEW ZEALAND FILM: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY, edited by Diane Pivac with Frank Stark and Lawrence McDonald (Te Papa Press in association with the New Zealand Film Archive, $85, including DVD). This is not the first attempt at a history of film in this country, but where previous publications focused on specific topics, decades or the century milestone, this covers the entire span – from the first screening of a movie in Auckland in 1896 to the release of Boy in 2010.

THE SILENCE BEYOND: SELECTED WRITINGS, by Michael King, with an introduction by Rachael King (Penguin, $42). In a 1977 essay, King called himself “the survivor of a dying breed: the sympathetic Pakeha journalist who for a time specialised in writing about Maori things in the footsteps of Rusdens, Cowans and Ramsdens”. King joined their company in 2004, so The Silence Beyond serves to remind us of the ways in which he earned his living as a jobbing historian/journalist/biographer in a world very different to our current age of professional overspecialisation.

SO BRILLIANTLY CLEVER: PARKER, HULME AND THE MURDER THAT SHOCKED THE WORLD, by Peter Graham (Awa Press, $42). Former lawyer Graham was convinced the field was still wide open for a book that told the full “fascinating story” of that “moider”. The speed with which So Brilliantly Clever has been flying off bookshop shelves ­suggests he was right.

A TRAIN IN WINTER: A STORY OF RESISTANCE, FRIENDSHIP AND SURVIVAL, by Caroline Moorehead (Chatto & Windus, $39.99). This is a superb historical account and a magnificent, riveting testimony to the courage and friendship of 230 women “politiques”, most working for the French Resistance, who were the only such group to be deported to Auschwitz.

TUPAIA: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF CAPTAIN COOK’S POLYNESIAN NAVIGATOR, by Joan Druett (Random House, $55). Tupaia was the go-between who played a major role in placating Tahitians when the first English ship reached the island, and later proved an invaluable asset as James Cook’s Endeavour sailed to New Zealand and Australia. He deserved a full biography, and thanks to Druett’s meticulous research he now has one that is comprehensive and highly readable.

Current affairs

BOOMERANG: THE MELTDOWN TOUR, by Michael Lewis (Allen Lane, $47). Lewis tours a Europe on the verge of a financial meltdown, and explains how it all came to this with some irresistible and lucid storytelling. The author of Liar’s Poker, which dissected Wall Street in the 80s, bounces from Iceland to Greece to Germany to Ireland, his incredulity growing about the collective madness he is witness to. Who is next in this rolling fiscal judgment day? The US, concludes Lewis – in particular, the broken state of California.

OTHER PEOPLE’S WARS: NEW ­ZEALAND IN AFGHANISTAN, IRAQ AND THE WAR ON TERROR, by Nicky Hager (Craig Potton, $44.99). When this book first appeared – unveiled to the media after being cloaked in secrecy – reactions in high places were disparaging. A pity, because although some of Hager’s opinions may be controversial and his conclusions not necessarily complete or indeed right when it comes to particulars, this is a serious book that is well written and researched and based heavily on primary sources summarised in some 60 pages of footnotes.

TO DIE FOR: IS FASHION WEARING OUT THE WORLD, by Lucy Siegle (Fourth Estate, $34.99). Although she shows how the contents of our wardrobes are minefields of environmental and ethical issues, Siegle is no fashion puritan but a fashion lover committed to becoming an “intelligent fashion consumer”. Rather than simplifying issues, her strength is she allows them to remain complex; instead of presenting clear-cut solutions, she offers questions and guidelines to set readers on their own pathway.


THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A BIOGRAPHY OF CANCER, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Fourth Estate, $29.99). Although a little too US-centric, Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning attempt to “enter the mind of this immortal disease, to demystify its behaviour” is a fine book full of richly drawn characters, looking back to when cancer wasn’t mentioned in polite society and treatments were hit or miss and often brutal, and forward to the ongoing battle against it, and “the relentlessness, the inventiveness, the resilience, the queasy pivoting between defeatism and hope”.

THE GOD SPECIES: HOW THE PLANET CAN SURVIVE THE AGE OF HUMANS, by Mark Lynas (Fourth Estate, $36.99). This self-declared “radical manifesto” is based on the premise that there are “planetary boundaries” within which humanity can safely operate. Some boundaries we have yet to reach, but we are well beyond those for climate change and biodiversity and need to take urgent action on them. What makes the book so challenging is that the planetary boundaries concept does not imply any limits to human population or economic growth. An enjoyable and worthwhile read, whether you agree with it or not.

THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD, by James Gleick (Fourth Estate, $39.99). Knotty and not for the faint-hearted in its later sections, The Information begins with a historical narrative that races along like a thriller, tracing the history of language, words, symbolism, mathematics, formal logic, dictionaries and the invention of mechanical “thinking” machines.

PIECES OF MIND: 21 SHORT WALKS AROUND THE HUMAN BRAIN, by Michael C Corballis (AUP, $29.99). Corballis, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland, has his accessible, often whimsical, sometimes subversive way with such topics as handedness, the gestural origins of language and the uniquely human ability to bullshit. Myths are dispelled about right-brain creativity and that we don’t use 90% of the brain. A small but attractively formed way to awake your inner scientist.

THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Text, $30). To carry off a book like this – featuring Bailey’s observations of a snail living in a bedside pot plant – you have to be either a very good writer or a really interesting person. Thankfully, this New England writer bedridden with a mysterious illness is both. Her book is, in turn, comforting, a delightful piece of time out and a meditation away from a sometimes tumultuous and anxiety-inducing world.

Art & photography

THE ART OF PETER SIDDELL, by Peter Siddell (Godwit, $75). This book, published in February, is a fitting tribute to Siddell, who died in October. His wraparound townscapes, bathed in holy light, might be the panoramas of a lost Atlantis – resurrected, immobilised, vacant, unblemished. These are landscape paintings in the tradition of the Romantic Sublime, some featuring the giganticism of South Island mountains and fiords, but assembled from memory and imagination as well as observation.

ART TOI: NEW ZEALAND ART AT THE AUCKLAND ART GALLEY, edited by Ron Brownson (Auckland Art Gallery, $59.95). Forget that Art Toi is really a catalogue for Auckland Art Gallery’s collection, forgive the occasional self-congratulatory aside on the institution’s purchasing or programming acumen – this is a lucid and well-illustrated overview of art in this country. Sweeping across media and genre, pinning down the main art movements with solid scholarly essays, it fills a long-vacant slot in the art section of the bookcase.

FANTASTICA: THE WORLD OF LEO BENSEMANN, by Peter Simpson (AUP, $75). The many aspects of Bensemann – artist, designer, typographer, printer and key player in Christchurch’s formative The Group – are drawn together in this convincing portrait. More coherent than the accompanying exhibition at Christ­church Art Gallery (cut short by the February 22 earthquake), Fantastica joins the dots between Bensemann’s private life and public persona, his work as a designer and an artist and, most importantly, the fantastical studies of his graphic work and his later landscapes.

FIONA PARDINGTON: THE PRESSURE OF SUNLIGHT FALLING, edited by Kriselle Baker and Elizabeth Rankin (Otago, in association with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Two Rooms, $120). Pardington’s photo­graphs of a 19th-century phrenologist’s casts of Pasifika and Maori heads is a mid-career masterpiece. She reappropriates these busts and reinvests their mana by highlighting their neoclassical dignity and beauty through immaculate lighting and composition. The images are further enhanced by illuminating and erudite essays. Otago University Press is not particularly known for its art books, but long may it continue to produce them if they are going to look this good.

GRAHAME SYDNEY’S CENTRAL OTAGO, (Penguin, $95). Having proved his photographic mettle with 2008’s White Silence: Graham Sydney’s Antarctica, Sydney trains his lens on (mostly) the landscape and (less often but no less memorably) the people of the region we know so well from his paintings. Books of photographs of the South Island are published at an alarming rate, but precious few share Sydney’s mastery of composition. One that does, though, is Sydney photographer MikiNobu Komatsu’s Light Moods South ($89.99), distributed in New Zealand by publisher David Bateman.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE IMAGE, by Dick Frizzell (Godwit, $65). It’s a no-brainer, really: other than their own artworks, what better way to learn about an artist than through the artworks of others they enjoy most? And what better way to break free of the usual suspects that beset so many New Zealand art-history books at this level than to hand the choosing over to an artist rather than another curator pursuing a particular line? And so, voila, we have this. Here’s hoping Godwit repeats the exercise with other artists.

THE LOST PHOTOGRAPHS OF CAPTAIN SCOTT: UNSEEN IMAGES FROM THE LEGENDARY ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION, by David M Wilson (Little, Brown, $75). These photographs provide a new perspective not only on a journey previously defined by Herbert Ponting’s camerawork but also on Scott. “People have said why did he marry that sculptor [former Rodin student Kathleen Bruce] but he clearly has quite a creative side,” Wilson said in an interview with the Listener. Although some pictures suffer from overexposure, loss of detail and obscured figures – standard errors for a novice photographer – the majority show a fine appreciation of scale and composition, not valorising the explorers in the “great unknown” but presenting sharp, sensitive records of people – and animals – within this unworldly landscape.

A MICRONAUT IN THE WIDE WORLD: THE IMAGINATIVE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRAHAM PERCY, by Gregory O’Brien (AUP, $59.99). O’Brien included Percy in his 2007 book, A Nest of Singing Birds, marking the 100th anniversary of the New Zealand School Journal, and has since made a case for his being one of the best illustrators to have emerged from New Zealand. A Micronaut in the Wide World is not so much a full biography as an extended meditation on his life: a kaleidoscope of anecdote, reminiscence, graphics and household memorabilia.


LISTEN TO THIS, by Alex Ross (Fourth Estate, $39.99). Up to the age of 20, Ross listened to nothing but classical music; then he discovered Sonic Youth. In this collection of essays, the New Yorker’s avowedly anti-elitist classical columnist writes about Mozart, Schubert and Verdi with imagination, energy and wit that rival the best rock criticism, while his pieces on Radiohead, Björk and Bob Dylan are refreshing in their attention to musical detail and avoidance of pop-culture clichés.

OUT OF TIME: THE VEXED LIFE OF GEORG TINTNER, by Tanya Buchdahl Tintner (University of Western Australia Publishing, $49.95). Many concert-going New Zealanders will recall the fragile figure of conductor Tintner looking much as he is pictured on the cover of this absorbing and immaculately put together book by his third wife and widow, who writes with a candour that usually eludes family members who tackle biographies.

RETROMANIA: POP CULTURE’S ADDICTION TO ITS OWN PAST, by Simon Reynolds (Faber and Faber, $39.99). Reynolds, so fêted for his Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, copped considerable flak for this book-length claim that pop culture has exhausted itself and is merely sucking on the marrow of its glory days. It’s a provocative position, to be sure, and one with plenty of holes in it, but Reynolds argues it with great intelligence and insight, leaving you with much to think on.


THE BRUCE McLAREN SCRAPBOOK: A PICTORIAL CELEBRATION OF A KIWI LEGEND, by Jan McLaren and Richard Becht (Harper Sports, $59.99). A scrapbook that couldn’t be further from scrappy. Family, author and publisher have done a tremendous job presenting the wealth of photographs and memorabilia gathered here; an immaculately produced must for petrolheads.

UNION: THE HEART OF RUGBY, by Paul Thomas (Penguin, $60). There were more rugby books than you could kick a ball at this year, but none better than this by Listener sports columnist Thomas, featuring interviews with Martin Johnson, John Kirwan, Joel Stransky, Nick Farr-Jones and Philippe Sella, and 150 images from some of the world’s best rugby photographers. There are many reasons to read it, but Thomas’s riff on the songs of Warren Zevon seals matters. A word, too, for the more localised For the Love of the Game: Grassroots Rugby in Heartland New Zealand, by Gregor Paul and Gregory Crow (Exisle, $49.99), and Our Game, by Arno Gasteiger and Peter Malcouronne (New Zealand Geographic, $49.99).


ARGUABLY, by Christopher Hitchens (Allen & Unwin, $39.99). An anthology that supplies 752 pages’ worth of reasons for wishing the best for Hitchens, who has advanced oesophageal cancer. The variety on display is impressive, sequestering Anglo-American literary eminences, transatlantic political figures and a flurry of personal diversions, all pressed into service with varying degrees of success for the sake of maverick argument. Even New Zealand’s Jonathan Hunt rates a passing snarky reference.

THE BROKEN BOOK, by Fiona Farrell (AUP, $34.99). What began as a book about walking – gentle, insightful essays that ramble through time and place, encountering the small strangenesses of other countries, the foreignness of the past – was broken apart by the September and February Christ­church earthquakes and reassembled to include a chapter on the quakes and 21 poems dropped in arbitrarily to “show how your rhythm and pattern get broken. It is like there is a complete crack,” Farrell told the Listener.

THE COMMONPLACE BOOK: A WRITER’S JOURNEY THROUGH QUOTATIONS, by Elizabeth Smither (AUP, $34.99). The concept of recording your thoughts, ideas, quotations and memories in a “commonplace book” flourished in the Renaissance, and by the 17th and 18th centuries anyone with intellectual ambitions was likely to keep one. Here is Smither’s, and it’s pure delight from start to finish, born of her gift of “finding bliss in the smallest thing”.

DARK NIGHT: WALKING WITH ­McCAHON, by Martin Edmond (AUP, $37.99). Edmond’s mission is simple and very game: to walk through Sydney reimagining what Colin McCahon saw during the “dark night” he went missing in the city’s Botanic Gardens in 1984, before being found a day later miles away, unsure where he’d been and who he was. A longtime Sydneysider and sometime taxi driver, Edmond is uniquely qualified, but what really sets the book apart is the care it expresses for its subject as both a person and a soul, the need to care for which “can outlast the death of the body”.

GO THE F--- TO SLEEP, by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo Cortes (Text, $23). What parent wouldn’t smirk with recognition at the terrible truth behind this mock children’s picture book; what parent wouldn’t scowl with annoyance that they didn’t think of it first and make the mint Mansbach has.

A GOOD MAIL: LETTERS OF JOHN MULGAN, selected and edited by Peter Whiteford (VUP, $50). The imminent centenary of the Man Alone author’s birth brings not only this fascinating selection of his correspondence but also a previously unpublished memoir, Journey to Oxford (VUP, $30), and a reissue of Vincent O’Sullivan’s tremendous 2003 biography, Long Journey to the Border (Bridget Williams, $49.99).

THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES: A HIDDEN INHERITANCE, by Edmund de Waal (Vintage, $29.99). The sleeper non-fiction hit of the year. De Waal’s celebration of his family’s netsuke collection (including the hare of the book’s title) is also a riveting history of the family itself – from Odessa to Vienna, Paris, Tokyo, London and the US, part of the grand Jewish narrative, involving dispossession, war and genocide. De Waal is a potter and his writing shares the lucency of his white pots.

HOW TO BE A WOMAN, by Caitlin Moran (Ebury, $37.99). British newspaper columnist Moran is the gobby, brazen, somewhat unlikely new It girl of post-feminism feminism. Give this book to your daughters, and your sons. They’re more likely to get through it than The Female Eunuch, although possibly not without passing out. It offers an impressive lexicon of jolly words for female anatomy and also catalogues a lifelong one-woman war against embarrassment and shame – hers and ours.

OLD BUCKY & ME: DISPATCHES FROM THE CHRISTCHURCH EARTHQUAKE, by Jane Bowron (Awa Press, $33). Bowron’s daily columns for the Dominion Post and Press newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the February 22 quake were obligatory reading, as have been her weekly ones that followed. Bowron was uniquely placed, not simply because she was living in the central city but also because she had just the journalistic eye you wanted at such a time: game (setting forth on her bicycle), wry, witty and wonderfully observant, immune to bullshit and platitudes, conveying the fullest sense of life amid the “muntage” away from orange-jacketed press conferences. Columnist of the year at next year’s media awards? She’d better be.

TWELVE MINUTES OF LOVE: A TANGO STORY, by Kapka Kassabova (Portobello, $39.99). Equipped “with a pair of tango shoes, a dress, a silk fan, a city map with tango venues marked on it, and an eye mask – so that I can sleep through the days and dance through the nights”, Kassabova takes us on a journey into tango – and her own heart. As she criss-crosses the globe in search of milongas, she explores tango’s ecstasy and desperation, its unique subculture and exotic characters. A compelling read.

WHATA KAKAHU/MAORI CLOAKS, edited by Awhina Tamarapa (Te Papa Press, $84.99). The artistry of the cloaks in Te Papa’s kakahu collection – the largest in the world and scheduled for an exhibition next year – is evident throughout Norman Heke’s more than 300 photographs. This is a breathtakingly beautiful book, both in the images of cloaks in full and in the almost-abstract close crops that highlight the intricacies of colour, pattern and texture. There are essays and notes on each cloak, too – if you can tear your eyes away from the pictures.

Comments from Listener reviews and features, and by Elizabeth Alley, Fergus ­Barrowman, Joanne Black, Sally Blundell, Nick Bollinger, Sam Finnemore, Siobhan Harvey, Francesca Horsley, David Larsen, Ruth Laugesen, Gavin McLean, Paula Morris, Emma Neale, Louise O’Brien, Rebecca Priestley, Craig Ranapia, Craig ­Sisterson, Guy Somerset and Diana Wichtel.

We have received the following letters in response to this story:

Thanks for the Top Reads recommendations (December 10), but let’s not forget to catch up on those books we missed in previous years. I’ve recently been seeking out secondhand bookshops, only to find they are disappearing. Hamilton had three but now has one. Apparently Tauranga lost one recently; Wellington has lost at least one; Cambridge’s has gone and the wonderful stores in Tirau and Rotorua need support. For the price of two or three flat whites, you can buy a pre-owned book, offering a few hours of quality reading. They are almost cheaper than library fines if you slip up on the return date. My plea to all book lovers is to make a trip to your second-hand book dealer to buy books for this summer’s holiday. If we don’t use them, we will lose them.
K Callander

Re the letter from K Callander (Rotorua) in your Dec 31 copy, I am the owner of just such a shop here in Orewa. I have attached a copy of a “Trail” that I have designed, and as I find out about other like shops, I contact them, and if willing they go onto the “Trail”. I see to it that all participating stores have a copy to hand out to visitors and the like and have found it to be quite popular. We keep close contact among ourselves as well, so we have a good fast search facility for books. We are a dying breed – so those who like books might care to remember us when they need a good read. Perhaps other such stores might see this letter and contact me at neverendingbooks@xtra.co.nz if they would like to participate. As you can see, almost no-one in the South Island has come forth to join in.
Anne Pretorius
Never Ending Books
Shop 4, The Village
Moenui Avenue
Orewa 0931


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