Make the most of your break over the Christmas holidays. Here’s a shopping list of the year’s best reading, compiled by Sally Blundell and the Listener team.
ALL DAY AT THE MOVIES by Fiona Kidman (Vintage)
The utterly convincing story of a family pulled apart by circumstance – personal and political – over 60 identifiably New Zealand years.
ALL THAT MAN IS by David Szalay (Jonathan Cape)
A darkly comic exploration of masculinity, including a 17-year-old flitting across eastern Europe and a 73-year-old ex-government adviser coming to terms with old age.
AUTUMN by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
Hailed as one of England’s first post-Brexit novels, the initial offering of a planned quartet of seasonally titled books takes us through a poignant story of friendship, memory, age and the power of story.
BARKSKINS by Annie Proulx (Scribner)
A saga spanning 300 years traces the descendants of two 17th-century woodsmen and their divergent paths, sweeping across the erosion of Mi’kmaq culture and the development of a timber empire.
BEAST by Paul Kingsnorth (Faber)
A dark, intense story of man and real or imagined beast on the lonely moors of England – gripping, lyrical, terrifying.
BLACK ICE MATTER by Gina Cole (Huia)
A collection of short stories, neatly juxtaposing hot and cold, rural and urban, life and death. Succinct but human tales of love lost, love found, muted tragedy and quiet hope.
COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury)
A discerning novel of nation, family, relationships and siblings, spread over 50 years and stitched together by love, tragedy, gin and writing.
DAD ART by Damien Wilkins (Victoria University Press)
Beautifully told by a distracted, worried, loving member of the so-called “sandwich generation” – father, son, ex-husband, hopeful lover – Dad Art tells a story of family, anxiety, love and learning te reo.
THE DARK FLOOD RISES by Margaret Drabble (Canongate)
The author applies her signature humour, compassion and wisdom to deliberate on what constitutes a good life and a good death, from the viewpoint of the old and the bereaved.
DAYLIGHT SECOND by Kelly Ana Morey (HarperCollins)
A distinctly Kiwi take on the racehorse Phar Lap is an intelligently written pop novel, well-researched with a nice sense of detail and a rousing climax.
DAYS WITHOUT END by Sebastian Barry (Viking)
The twice Booker-shortlisted author returns with a violent, lyrical western offering a sweeping vision of America in the making and a tender gay love story.
DELETED SCENES FOR LOVERS by Tracey Slaughter (Victoria University Press)
A collection of 17 stories pulling the reader into the grip of often dark subject matter with bold but evocative force.
DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING by Madeleine Thien (WW Norton)
Mixing family, politics, music and mathematics, Thien’s epic narrative twists and turns through the upheavals of the Great Leap Forward and the madness of the Cultural Revolution.
THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail)
We’re in Victorian England and advances in science collide head-on with stories of a serpent terrorising the Blackwater estuary. Perry’s novel is dense with intrigue, fear, science and religion.
THE GIRLS by Emma Cline (Chatto & Windus)
Remarkably mature, beautifully written and atmospheric coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of Charles Manson-like tragedies.
THE GOOD PEOPLE by Hannah Kent (Picador)
A disabled boy, a desperate grandmother, an ageing healer – a small village in 19th-century Ireland becomes the dark setting to an enthralling story of superstition, faith and fear.
THE GUSTAV SONATA by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus)
A spare but compassionate tale of friendship, passion, betrayal, misplaced love and ethnic hatred, unfolding in the author’s signature finely grained detail.
HAG-SEED by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth)
The inimitable Atwood transplants the exotic world of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a contemporary story of theatrical resentment and plotted revenge.
HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi (Alfred A Knopf)
From a debut novelist, this century-hopping saga tracks the impact of slavery – the loss and the resilience – over some 250 years of family history.
THE LESSER BOHEMIANS by Eimear McBride (Alfred A Knopf)
A relationship between an 18-year-old drama student and a 38-year-old actor immerses the reader in a head-long, broken-up narrative on love, sex, betrayal and intimacy.
MOTHERING SUNDAY by Graham Swift (Alfred A Knopf)
A tense and stylish novella following one day in the secret relationship between an English maidservant (the year is 1924) and the heir to the manor.
THE MOTHERS by Brit Bennett (Riverhead)
Seventeen-year-old Nadia is at a crossroads: dead mother, two months’ pregnant, in love with the son of her church pastor, adrift from her social etwork. A captivating insight into love, friendship and forgiveness.
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)
Lucy Barton wakes in the hospital to find her estranged mother at the foot of her bed. For the next five nights, they share stories, memories and intimate reflections.
THE NOISE OF TIME by Julian Barnes (Alfred A Knopf)
A fascinating fictionalised account of the life of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich in his struggle with the Communist Party and the compromises he made under Stalin.
NUTSHELL by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)
A soliloquising embryo grows from a happily supine state, gaining insight from Radio 4, to an alarmed fetus privy to pillow talk of “deadly intent”. An utterly enjoyable nod to Hamlet.
THE PIER FALLS by Mark Haddon (Jonathan Cape)
The author of bestselling The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time shows he is as adept with the short-story format as he is with longer fiction in this riveting debut collection.
SELECTION DAY by Aravind Adiga (Picador)
A moving novel from the author of The White Tiger about class, religion, sexuality and parental ambition, based on the story of two young boys from Mumbai trying to be “the No 1 and No 2 batsmen in the world”.
SEX & DEATH edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs (Faber)
Acclaimed writers (Ali Smith, Wells Tower, Alan Warner, Sarah Hall et al) address the fundamentals of the title with spark, style and originality.
SHTUM by Jem Lester (Orion)
A debut novel based on the author’s experience about a family running the gamut of emotion as they struggle to cope with an autistic child – angry, unsentimental, darkly funny.
SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Vintage)
The penultimate volume in the author’s autobiographical six-novel cycle My Struggle returns to his student days of studying writing and literature at college in Bergen, Norway.
SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler (OneWorld)
Best-selling debut bildungsroman that knocked the socks off many critics with its lyricism and insightfulness.
SWING TIME by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
Two girls dream of being dancers; one has talent, the other ideas. Their different stories, skilfully told, describe friendship, music, dance and race.
TAIL OF THE TANIWHA by Courtney Sina Meredith (Beatnik Publishing)
An elegantly produced collection of short stories grounded in the Pacific community and culture in Auckland and abroad. Lyrical, poetic, powerful.
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
A complex and nuanced plot jumps around in time and place, pivoting on the story of a deftly portrayed marriage riven by secrecy, hope, disruption and estrangement.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
The gripping novel and Oprah Book Club inductee follows a young slave’s bid for freedom from a Georgia plantation through the Underground Railroad.
THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang (Hogarth)
A dutiful Korean wife decides to become a vegetarian after being haunted by nightmares about blood and brutality, setting in motion a frightening battle for domestic control.
THE WISH CHILD by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press)
Berlin, 1939. Two children cower in an abandoned building as their world falls apart – and the dream of a nation founders. Bold, beautifully written and compelling.
THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown)
An English nurse attends a girl said to have survived without food for months. Science and superstition come to a riveting collision in 19th-century Ireland.
ZERO K by Don DeLillo (Scribner)
With classic DeLillo complexity, Zero K hurtles down a dark plot comprising a billionaire, his terminally ill wife and the promise of cryopreservation.
Crime & Thrillers
BLACK TEETH by Zane Lovitt (Text)
A cast composed almost entirely of dubious, devious Australians who tell one another lies populate this quirky, contemporary thriller.
BLACK WATER LILIES by Michel Bussi (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Recently translated into English, Bussi’s idiosyncratic account of a village murder unfolds in the garden where Claude Monet painted his famous water lily pictures.
A DYING BREED by Peter Hanington (Two Roads)
A complex spy story set in Afghanistan follows a hard-drinking, contrary BBC journalist determined to solve the mystery of a fatal bombing.
I AM NO ONE by Patrick Flanery (Tim Duggan Books)
A disturbing and beautifully written thriller about memory, fear and life in the age of electronic surveillance.
THE JEALOUS KIND by James Lee Burke (Orion)
A fine coming-of-age novel about a young love-struck Texan forced to confront a mounting level of threat from cheap hoodlums, rotten rich kids and members of the mob.
RAZOR GIRL by Carl Hiaasen (Sphere)
A reality TV show host, Louisiana rednecks and a shady lawyer star in this scathing satire as demoted cop Andrew Yancy investigates a mysterious disappearance.
THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET by Jock Serong (Text)
Darren, tied up in the boot of a car with a bullet hole in his knee, launches this gripping tale of sibling rivalry as two Aussie brothers battle in cricket and in life.
History & War
AMERICA’S WAR FOR THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST: A MILITARY HISTORY by Andrew Bacevich (Random House)
Ties together atrocities of Beirut, Mogadishu, Iraq and IS, and asks the hard question: in three decades of intervention in the Middle East, why has the US military achieved so little?
DARK MONEY by Jane Mayer (Doubleday)
New Yorker writer’s forensic investigation into the shady billionaires who funded the radical takeover of the Republican Party and left the door wide open for Donald Trump.
EGGS OR ANARCHY? THE REMARKABLE STORY OF THE MAN TASKED WITH THE IMPOSSIBLE: TO FEED A NATION AT WAR by William Sitwell (Simon & Schuster)
The food writer reveals the untold and thoroughly entertaining story of Lord Woolton, the man in charge of the Ministry of Food during World War II.
THE GREAT WAR FOR NEW ZEALAND: WAIKATO 1800-2000 by Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books)
Amid the scramble of books on that other “great war”, O’Malley delivers the first history of the Waikato War since 1879. A vital part of our story told informatively and lucidly.
LES PARISIENNES: HOW THE WOMEN OF PARIS LIVED, LOVED AND DIED IN THE 1940s by Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
This is an extraordinary portrait of the everyday lives of female collaborateurs, Resistance workers and prisoners under Nazi occupation.
NEW ZEALAND’S WESTERN FRONT CAMPAIGN by Ian McGibbon (David Bateman)
A beautifully produced and illustrated account of a campaign that so often stands in the shadow of Gallipoli.
NOTHING EVER DIES: VIETNAM AND THE MEMORY OF WAR by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Harvard University Press)
A penetrating analysis by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Nguyen on how the Vietnam War has been remembered by the countries and people that have been most affected by it.
SECONDHAND TIME by Svetlana Alexievich (Fitzcarraldo)
A rich and textured history documenting the human story of the Soviet Union as it reached its demise and the newly independent states struggled into being.
THE WAY TO THE SPRING by Ben Ehrenreich (Granta)
A lyrical collection of stories from the West Bank recalling the undying resistance of the Palestinian people.
BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster)
A cathartic rockumentary revealing the frailties of the individual while also giving an inside glimpse of showbiz-land.
BEING CHINESE: A NEW ZEALANDER'S STORY by Helene Wong (Bridget Williams Books)
A significant and highly readable memoir of the author's family history. A personal investigation about being Chinese, and being Chinese in New Zealand.
THE BOY BEHIND THE CURTAIN by Tim Winton (Penguin)
Remarkable stories of the life and times of Australia’s bestselling author, encompassing family, books and the ever-surfable sea.
CAN YOU TOLERATE THIS? by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press)
A collection of self-professed personal essays from a Wellington poet, blogger and editor told with wisdom, vulnerability and a spare eloquence.
GUILTY THING: A LIFE OF THOMAS DE QUINCEY by Frances Wilson (Bloomsbury)
Compelling biography of the “last of the romantics” – opium-eater, celebrity journalist, obsessive flâneur and professional doppelgänger Thomas De Quincey.
IN GRATITUDE by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury)
A candid book describing the author’s diagnosis with lung cancer and writing, memory and writing, anger and writing, her adolescent years under the care of Doris Lessing – and more writing.
MANSFIELD AND ME: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR by Sarah Laing (Victoria University Press)
A writer, graphic designer and illustrator, Laing charts her own story in witty parallel to the dreams, loves, hopes and writerly success of our most famous literary expat.
MY FATHER’S ISLAND by Adam Dudding (Victoria University Press)
A lively memoir – half-affection, half-angst – of the author’s father: literary editor, husband, domestic tyrant, poultry breeder, depressive and gardener Robin Dudding.
THE PIGEON TUNNEL: STORIES FROM MY LIFE by John le Carré (Viking)
Warm, funny and wise stories from the master of spy fiction from his years serving in British Intelligence during the Cold War to his 60-year career as a writer.
THE ROMANOVS: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore (W&N)
Epic account of Russia’s often bonkers and barbaric royal dynasty, written with the verve of a novelist and the exhaustive research of a historian.
TE OKA – PAKEHA KAUMATUA: THE LIFE OF JOCK McEWEN by Mary McEwen (Potton & Burton)
An important insight into the historian, diplomat, linguist, administrator and master carver who worked to bridge the divide between the Maori and Pakeha worlds.
THINGS THAT MATTER: STORIES OF LIFE AND DEATH by Dr David Galler (Allen & Unwin)
Intensely human and highly readable memoir from an intensive-care specialist at Middlemore Hospital.
THE VANISHING MAN: IN PURSUIT OF VELÁZQUEZ by Laura Cumming (Chatto & Windus)
After the death of her father and a visit to the Prado, art critic Laura Cumming launches into a painstaking and compelling exploration of the life and art of Diego Velázquez.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? by Alan Light (Crown Archetype)
Intimate and vivid look at the torment and turmoil, demons and Dionysian excess behind the life of Nina Simone.
WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi (Random House)
A heartbreaking memoir chronicling a young doctor’s path from promising neurosurgeon to terminal cancer patient, published just months after his death in 2015.
WHITE SANDS: EXPERIENCES FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD by Geoff Dyer (Canongate)
A collection of stories – part-travel, part-name-dropping memoir, part-biography. Funny, irreverent, romantic, endlessly inquisitive.
Society, art and literature
THE ABUNDANCE by Annie Dillard (Canongate)
Wide-ranging, clear-eyed essays from the virtuoso of the form.
AND SOON I HEARD A ROARING WIND: A NATURAL HISTORY OF MOVING AIR by Bill Streever (Little Brown)
The nature writer explores the science and history of wind and weather – and how to navigate them.
THE BIG SMOKE: NZ CITIES 1840-1920 by Ben Schrader (Bridget Williams Books)
Schrader trashes the myth of our essential ruralness to describe the role of our cities in shaping New Zealand society.
BLOOMSBURY SOUTH by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press)
A beautifully illustrated and insightful account of the creative milieu that put Christchurch in the 30s and 40s at the forefront of artistic enterprise in this country.
COLLECTED POEMS: 1958-2015 by Clive James (Picador)
The compelling final will and testament to the form of writing the Aussie expat has held dearest.
FIONA PARDINGTON: A BEAUTIFUL HESITATION edited by Kriselle Baker and Aaron Lister
New essays, great photography and beautiful book design – learn about Pardington’s work, and the artist’s association with Kai Tahu whakapapa, or just wallow in the sumptuousness.
FUTUNA: LIFE OF A BUILDING edited by Nick Bevan and Gregory O’Brien (Victoria University Press/Futuna Charitable Trust)
A fascinating and moving story of a Wellington building designed by architect John Scott and artist Jim Allen – its inception, construction and 11th-hour rescue from erasure.
GOTTFRIED LINDAUER’S NZ: THE MĀORI PORTRAITS edited by Ngahiraka Mason and Zara Stanhope (Auckland University Press)
Informed essays, stunning photos, an expansive overview of the artist’s work from the perspectives of Maori whakapapa and kaupapa, and Pakeha art history.
A HISTORY OF NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE edited by Mark Williams (Cambridge University Press)
A comprehensive and important account of our local literature, beginning with the first European imaginings and taking us along the pathways to, and beyond, our emerging sense of nationalism and biculturalism.
JOHN PARKER: CAUSE AND EFFECT edited by Mary Barr (Te Uru)
Handsomely designed hardback surveying five decades of work by the boundary-pushing Auckland ceramicist.
LANDSCAPES: JOHN BERGER ON ART by John Berger (Verso)
A collection of essays by the singular nonagenarian art critic on the ideas and artists that have shaped his thinking.
THE LONELY CITY: ADVENTURES IN THE ART OF BEING ALONE by Olivia Laing (Canongate)
Wise, moving and compassionate investigation of the gaps between people, and the power of art to connect.
THE MAKING OF THE BRITISH LANDSCAPE: FROM THE ICE AGE TO THE PRESENT by Nicholas Crane (W&N)
Dramatic account of how climate and people have changed the lands of Britain over 12 millennia.
THE MAORI MEETING HOUSE: INTRODUCING THE WHARE WHAKAIRO by Damian Skinner (Te Papa Press)
Art historian and curator Damian Skinner weaves his own informed and personal narrative into whare whakairo with those of carvers, artists, architects, writers and iwi.
MY GRANDMOTHER’S GLASS EYE: A LOOK AT POETRY by Craig Raine (Atlantic)
Erudite and passionate examination by the English poet and teacher.
SMALL TOWN TALK by Barney Hoskyns (Faber)
A gossipy history of Woodstock – not the music festival but the small town down the road where Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix played out their lives of creativity and near or complete self-destruction.
THIS MODEL WORLD: TRAVELS TO THE EDGE OF CONTEMPORARY ART by Anthony Byrt (Auckland University Press)
Arts journalist and critic Anthony Byrt talks about art, artists, art criticism and why we should care in this personal journey through the contemporary New Zealand art world.
Science, Nature and Environment
ARE WE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW HOW SMART ANIMALS ARE? by Frans de Waal (Norton)
“Unlikely” is the answer, but de Waal’s journey on the way is discursive, enlightening and provoking, leaving us to figure out what separates “us” from “them”.
BLACK HOLE BLUES AND OTHER SONGS FROM OUTER SPACE by Janna Levin (Knopf)
A lyrical incursion into the world of scientific discovery, in this case the detection of the universe’s gravitational waves.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF EVERYONE WHO EVER LIVED by Adam Rutherford (Hachette)
Who you are, why you are and why none of the other 100 billion modern humans who have ever drawn breath is you. An exhaustive and entertaining story of the human genome.
DIGITAL VS HUMAN: HOW WE’LL LIVE, LOVE, AND THINK IN THE FUTURE by Richard Watson (Scribe)
In a crowded subject area, Watson’s examination of the possible effects of technology on our lives is succinct and well-reasoned.
THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and physician combines science and memoir to chronicle what we know about genes and how we use and misuse this information. Highly readable and provocative.
GRUNT: THE CURIOUS SCIENCE OF HUMANS AT WAR by Mary Roach (WW Norton)
The author of Bonk and Stiff turns her witty and keen attention to the science behind battle.
HOMO DEUS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF TOMORROW by Yuval Noah Harari (Harvill Secker)
A sweeping history of the human race, exploring our history and present, and asking where we go from here. Ticking off the projects, dreams and fears that will shape the 21st century.
MULTITUDES: THE MICROBES WITHIN US AND A GRANDER VIEW OF LIFE by Ed Yong (HarperCollins)
Our bodily cargo of bacteria, viruses and other microscopic organisms that live in and on us play a vital role in the health of their hosts. Here’s how.
NEW ZEALAND’S RIVERS: AN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY by Catherine Knight (Canterbury University Press)
Our relationship with our rivers – how we have arrived at a crisis point, why fresh water has become our most contested resource and how so many waterways are now too polluted to swim in.
REALITY IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS: THE JOURNEY TO QUANTUM GRAVITY by Carlo Rovelli (Allen Lane)
“Our culture is foolish to keep science and poetry separated” – with this heart-warming statement, physicist Rovelli guides us through the long humanist and scientific history of our changing idea of reality.
RESTLESS CREATURES: THE STORY OF LIFE IN TEN MOVEMENTS by Matt Wilkinson (Icon)
The four-billion-year history of human and animal movement – crawling, flying, swimming, running – by the evolutionary biologist.
THE STORY OF THE HAURAKI GULF: DISCOVERY, TRANSFORMATION, RESTORATION by Raewyn Peart (Bateman)
An expansive and well-illustrated exploration and celebration of the people and places, the history and heroics, of the Hauraki Gulf.
TIME TRAVEL: A HISTORY by James Gleick (Pantheon Books)
An exhilarating hybrid of history, literary criticism, theoretical physics and philosophical meditation takes us on an odyssey of the stranger-than-fiction reality of TT.
This article was first published in the November 26, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.