BRICK LANE, by Monica Ali (Doubleday, $34.95).
The hype – the next Zadie Smith, a generous two-book deal, a huge advance and a place on Granta’s hottest young writers list and all on the basis of a few chapters – was warranted. Brick Lane is very, very good. It follows the journey of 18-year-old Nanzeen, from rural Bangladesh to Tower Hamlets, London, and an arranged marriage with the fortysomething, frog-faced Chanu. She arrives with only two words of English but enough fortitude to see her through a loveless marriage, her children’s cultural collisions and her own journey of self-realisation. Vivid characters, compelling story – and humour, too.
THE BRIDE STRIPPED BARE, by Anonymous (Fourth Estate, $25).
This is the kind of book that a woman might pick up to see she is not alone – but she might just want to hide that reason from her partner. Although (deliberately?) sprung before the novel even appeared, the decision to publish anonymously convinced people that Nikki Gemmell was simply writing about her own life, her lack of satisfaction with her husband and her need to find it outside the marital bed. It’s written in the second person as if to accuse every reader of wanting to experience it for herself, but it’s not the lurid, guilt-ridden sex-fest you might expect, and that’s a good thing. Instead, it’s an oddly gripping, intimate account of a woman trying to sort out her domestic life, with a bit of bonking thrown in.
ORYX & CRAKE, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, $49.95).
This is Atwood’s second version of a dystopian future, the first being The Handmaid’s Tale, which focused on women and reproductive technology. This particular post-Armageddon is the result of bioengineering and Atwood lets her imagination run riot – there are pig-like animals that grow multiple organs for farming, headless chickens with multiple breasts, and a strain of herpes that glows in the dark. The hero is Snowman, who is introduced at the beginning of the novel living in a tree and wearing a sheet, possibly the last man alive, his only company a group of beautiful but bland humanoids. Atwood spends the rest of her hugely entertaining novel revealing how it came to this.
DOUBLE VISION, by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton, $34.95).
Barker’s acute insights into the effects of war seem to be limitless. Her latest emerges from the background of the war zone of Slobodan Milosovic, and poses questions about the need for increased state responsibility for war crimes. The ethics of war reportage and photo-graphic journalism in contemporary war and acts of terrorism have a terrible
topicality; it’s also a good love story. Barker’s prose is a model for all would-be writers. Her great skill is in hooking the reader in to challenging topics by disarmingly casual metaphor. Be warned – the moral dilemmas of this book will keep you awake at night.
ANTHEM, by Tim Binding (Picador, $37.95).
A massive, unfashionably sprawling, invigorating exploration of England during the Falklands crisis – using the microcosm of a single street. Anthem is an emotional and moral snapshot, framing the last great hurrah of a washed-out colonial super-power. Binding’s novels roam a vast landscape while remaining psychologically intimate; his empathic gift allows compassion for the venal, the weak, the damaged, the lost and the violent – and for an England whose flag, however triumphantly it might be waved, is forever faded.
THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, by Anita Brookner (Viking, $26.95).
Jane Austen’s lucid toughness without the bitchy humour. Brookner’s heroine inhabits a melancholy – unrecognisable – 20th century. Elizabeth is relentlessly genteel: no job, no financial worries, few friends. She never swears, eats take-aways or uses a computer, and is aggravatingly well-mannered, even while having sex with her husband’s best friend. Why read the book? For the beauty of the prose, with its occasional, superb bitterness – “It seemed that love no longer made her happy, from which I deduced that it was the real thing” – and for bleak acceptance that rule-breakers not only get away with it, they are also rewarded with rest, pleasure and prosperity.
COSMOPOLIS, by Don DeLillo (Picador, $37.95).
Shorter than his Underworld and more grounded than The Body Artist, DeLillo’s latest is a postmodern adventure through New York. Despite the characters’ many protests about luxury and technology, the author likes what he sees. Simultaneously bloated and underwritten, the narrative shifts between allegory and action with glossy speed. A spy novel for people who think too hard.
THE SCORNFUL MOON, by Maurice Gee (Penguin, $34.95).
New Zealand’s best male writer about families puts a bunch of both genders into the national and sexual politics of the 1920s-30s, then quietly, consummately tells you what happens. The story supreme as always; decent, appalled lives respectfully rendered. Gee goes on extending his reach, showing us ourselves, opening up those places we had only dimly known existed.
NOTES ON A SCANDAL, by Zoë Heller (Penguin, $45).
The unofficial runner-up of this year’s Booker, Notes on a Scandal is a disturbing tale of repression and obsession. The narrator, 60-year-old spinster and schoolteacher Barbara, gives an unsentimental and increasingly unreliable account of her fellow teacher and friend Sheba’s affair with a 15-year-old student. Barbara’s notes on this scandal reveal as much about herself – her loneliness, self-loathing and possible lunacy – as they do of Sheba and her transgression and the book ends on a chilling, if not surprising, note. There’s an easy balance between black comedy and tragedy and Heller’s prose is caustic and clever, while her eye for significant detail is unerring. A brainy spine-chiller to rival Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.
WHAT I LOVED, by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre, $26.95).
A big, rewarding, grown-up novel about two families of artists and academics in New York. Hustvedt doesn’t really do humour, but more than makes up for it with the gravitas of her prose and the momentum of the plot, as urbane domesticity is shattered by a series of ungovernable tragedies. This is a novel about life, loss and art: the descriptions of artworks and literature are especially riveting, reminding us to look very hard and very carefully at what is right under our noses.
THE NAMESAKE, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Harper Collins, $34.95).
Lahiri’s much anticipated follow-up to her sparkling debut story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, is an engrossing first novel. She explores the anatomy of a multi-decade, transcontinental identity crisis, as Gogol Ganguli (crazy name, crazy guy) tries to make his face – and name – fit, in Boston, New York and Calcutta. The story is slim, but Lahiri’s characters are engaging, and her polished prose is a dream to read.
DANCER, by Colum McCann (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $35).
A quite extraordinary, powerful and entirely fictional account of the life of Rudolf Nureyev. Some of the material is drawn from real accounts, although McCann deliberately avoids identifying which those bits might be. This monstrous, magnificent, self-obsessed, dazzling dancer emerges from the narratives of dozens of characters whose lives were briefly illuminated by him (Margot Fonteyn, Andy Warhol); most of these characters are made up, such as his lifelong slipper maker or the husband of Nureyev’s first teacher, a melancholy exile who fortifies his spirit with Pasternak. Who Nureyev really was remains just out of reach, which seems apt, given the inherently elusive nature of celebrity.
BLOOM, by Kelly Ana Morey (Penguin, $27.95).
Local debut of the year. Here is a fresh voice offering something completely different from other New Zealand novel-ists. There is a wide range of emotion and experience presented, a sense of history, Maori and Pakeha characters and cultures are handled absolutely naturally, and the sheer vitality and expressiveness of the writing is a joy. The characters are almost all likeable, especially the ghost. The dialogue is often funny and always true to the character, and it all rattles along with great energy and humour.
THE MEMORY STONES, by Kate O’Riordan (Pocket, $22.95).
A solid, slow burner, fuelled with surprise and vivid prose. Nell Hennessy left Ireland at 16 to have her baby and hasn’t returned. She now lives a tidy and elegant life in Paris, with her past and its pain locked away. Nell believes that she’s thrown away the key, until she’s forced to return to Ireland to help her daughter and must face her past and rethink her future. A tender and passionate novel for mothers, daughters, lovers and anyone wanting a holiday from the holidays.
THE SEA BETWEEN US, by Elizabeth Smither (Penguin, $27.95).
The New Plymouth writer’s first novel in 17 years shifts between her home city and Auckland, Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmania, from the 1920s to the present, as she tells the saga of the four Berryman sisters. “With a writer as sly and subtle as Smither, the pleasure’s in the journey itself – in its side-tracks and excursions, the backward glances, the unexpected glimpses into other people’s lives,” wrote Paula Morris (Listener, May 17).
ELECTRIC, by Chad Taylor (Random, $34.95).
Naming him as one of the 10 best New Zealand novelists under 40, David Eggleton wrote in the Listener, “Taylor writes about drug-enhanced chaos, about abundance, excess, choices – about everything grinding down towards entropy, as android characters try to work out some mystery. He captures the way a whole trendy sub-culture of Auckland speaks and thus renders their mindset with satisfying, pitch-perfect precision.”
THE COLOUR, by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, $34.95).
Far too much attention was paid as to whether or not there were voles in New Zealand when this book came out here, which seemed foolish, considering the quality of research and the imagination invested in Tremain’s latest novel. Set during the gold rush of Hokitika in the 1860s, it focuses on the “sameness of people’s longings”. For the main character, Joseph, the desire to dig another life out of the earth becomes an all-encompassing obsession that ultimately defeats him. Although the novel contains a few romantic touches that border on the mawkish, they don’t distract from a moving, haunting, utterly convincing evocation of this place, in another
A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, $59.95).
Probably every bookshelf should have a copy of this, if only because it’ll save you from overspending on encyclopedias. Reading Bryson’s clever, cheerful, lucid version of space, time, life and all that stuff is like the best day you could ever have at school: learning becomes fantastic fun. Even chemistry starts to sound interesting. After a while.
LEISURE & PLEASURE, Reshaping and revealing the New Zealand body 1900-1960, by Caroline Daley (Auckland University Press, $39.99).
It began as an article about strongman Eugen Sandow’s tour here in 1902. Sandow sparked New Zealand’s interest in physical culture, and Daley’s compass expanded to include the rise of nudity, sunbathing, our first gyms and beauty contests. This (literally) revealing book contains wonderful facts about our figures: an early Miss New Zealand won 1000 cigarettes in her prize package; police took the names of men stripped to the waist at Lyall Bay in 1935; a Chancellor of the University of New Zealand once urged sterilisation of people unfit to breed. Perfect summer reading; scholarship with a light touch.
THE QUEST FOR ORIGINS, by K R Howe (Penguin, $29.95).
From the Listener, March 15: “This book is far and away the best we have on the early human discovery, exploration and settlement of the Pacific region … He shows how Europeans in particular had enormous difficulty coming to terms with the fact that so-called primitive peoples could have ranged so far and wide in their voyaging – from Madagascar to Easter Island – long before navigators of the ‘civilised’ world had left the Mediterranean or the mainland of Europe.” The reviewer? Michael King. See below.
THE PENGUIN HISTORY OF NEW ZEALAND, by Michael King (Penguin, $29.95).
So this is where we have come from. This is where we are now, and this is where we are likely heading. King’s history is eminently – pre-eminently – readable. King writes endearingly (how he loves his country) but with a cool eye for its mistakes and stumbles. He is persuasive but without strong-arming us. Here’s one history for reading and pondering, not just putting on the shelf.
THE POWER OF BABEL: A natural history of language, by John McWhorter (Arrow, $27.95).
Energetic, funny, and – actually, this isn’t a sin, you know – complicated. McWhorter romps through rampant jungles of linguistic weirdness: the African tongue with 16 genders, the Australian ones with three verbs. On the way he spears your assumptions: so you thought hunter-gatherers spoke a cruder tongue (“Bunga bunga bunga!”) than yourself? Wrong. The more remote the culture, the more likely it is to be thick with “barnacles” – declensions, exceptions and strange sounds that “leave an English speaker wondering how anyone could speak the language without running the risk of a stroke”.
MASON: A Life of R A K Mason, by Rachel Barrowman (Victoria University Press, $49.95).
A hugely impressive biography of a severely gifted poet. Barrowman’s 400 pages are based on thorough research and trace the full story of a troubled man – his family life, his left-wing political beliefs, his involvement in the New Zealand China Society – and at the same time give us fascinating and accessible insights into the literary and political history of New Zealand. Though restrained in her speculations, Barrowman exposes enough of the dynamics of Mason’s family to reveal the source of his creative engines in the early death of his father (suicide?), his mother’s smothering attachment and his brother’s criminal perfidy. Mason’s later dedication to Marxism (the God who failed) is documented in all its sad and salutary detail, as is his painful mental decline (the brilliant firework lingering on as a burnt-out case) in later years. The intense youthful poet of The Beggar and No New Thing receives just and sympathetic attention.
CHARLES DARWIN: Volumes one and two, by Janet Browne (Pimlico, both $45).
Browne’s mammoth work – lumped together, we’re talking over 1000 pages – is the definitive A-Z of the great man, from anatomy (comparative, in plants) to, er, New Zealand. There is much about his blistering barnacles, and the Beagle, FitzRoy, the Galapagos, etc; as well as his profound voyage, and his profound Origin of the Species, Browne shows us the loveable old coot inside and out, suffering from tremendous flatulence, adapting to celebrity, and always, always thinking.
THE DEVIL THAT DANCED ON THE WATER, by Aminatta Forna (Flamingo, $25).
A personal history of the author’s childhood in Sierra Leone, an idyll that was interrupted by the arrest of her dissident father. As a child, Forna witnessed political upheaval, flight, danger and, eventually, exile, when she was taken to Britain by her mother. Her father, Mohammed Forna, was hanged by the corrupt dictator Siaka Stevens. This engaging story of an African childhood becomes a vivid account of the power-mongering and corruption of postcolonial African politics, as Forna goes back to Sierra Leone to illuminate for herself the events she witnessed that led to her father’s execution.
SLIPSTREAM, by Elizabeth Jane Howard (Pan, $27.95).
Book of the year. Novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard’s pen has always spluttered out creepy and charming at the same time (Something in Disguise, Mr Wrong). She married naturalist Peter Scott, son of Robert, and got the mother-in-law from hell – “If you ever make Pete unhappy I shall want to stab you. I should enjoy doing it.” Kingsley Amis was the love of her life, but their marriage fell apart under his drinking and her unhappiness, so he once told a newspaper that meeting her was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. She had an affair with Arthur Koestler, interviewed Evelyn Waugh for telly (“When is Miss Howard going to take off all her clothes?”) and was loving friends with Cecil Day-Lewis, who came to her house to die. Howard’s candid 500-page autobiography is compelling because of the often painful honesty with which she traces her life from her birth in 1923, through her early days as an actress and model, and then her career as a successful novelist. Gossipy, intensely literary, candid and kind.
ELECTRIC SHEPHERD, by Karl Miller (Faber, $64.95).
Karl Miller is a scholar, but he identifies so closely with his rebellious, flamboyant subject that this biography is neither dry nor too academic. It is an idiosyncratic, readable account of James Hogg, the “Ettrick Shepherd” whose huge talent saw him taken up by literary society in Edinburgh in the early 19th century. Although he was of lowly social origin, Hogg refused to bend his knee to the whispering snobs around him. He went down to London in his plaid, and firmly brazened it out.
LONG JOURNEY TO THE BORDER, by Vincent O’Sullivan (Penguin, $49.95).
One of our best poets, novelists, short-story writers, essayists and playwrights now proves himself to be one of our best biographers. Vincent O’Sullivan tells the story of John Mulgan in some of the most sweetly functional prose you could wish to read. He draws you into Mulgan’s enigma – the fair-haired man of courage who wrote a classic New Zealand novel, and took his own life, mysteriously, near the end of World War II – and lets you judge for yourself. O’Sullivan illuminates not just the man and his work but also the society he lived in: ours.
THE TRIAL OF THE CANNIBAL DOG, by Anne Salmond (Allen Lane, $59.95).
Very nearly the book of the year. Captain Cook’s three voyages to New Zealand and the Pacific are given a masterly retelling by the Auckland academic; she looks at life and conditions on the ships, but also tells of what was going on in the islands – and so, for the first time proper, we have a balanced, pluralistic view of this defining moment in our history. Most scholars have it that Cook met his death after illness had clouded his judgment. Salmond finds no real evidence for this, and instead attempts to put forward the theory that Cook suffered a crisis of faith. Central to her thesis is the practice of cannibalism in New Zealand, which she describes with the same steady, unsentimental gaze that holds the entire book.
SAMUEL PEPYS: The unequalled self, by Claire Tomalin (Viking, $39.95).
Samuel Pepys, when he wasn’t networking at the palace or dashing about 17th-century London feeling up women, kept the most famous diary in English, happily during one of the most exciting decades in history – war, the plague, the fire of London, etc. Claire Tomalin’s prize-winning biography casts a womanly eye over Pepys’s tumultuous life; her scrupulous, original and engaging biography makes a convincing case for Pepys’s genius. There’s also a great deal of sex, much of it unpleasant and comical, but as Tomalin argues, it’s the dreadful self-awareness of Pepys that makes him so rivetingly modern.
IRIS MURDOCH AS I KNEW HER, by A N Wilson (Hutchinson, $59.95).
An already notorious memoir of the late Iris Murdoch, by her supposed friend. “She was – says Wilson – a spoilt only child who used other people mercilessly. In addition to being promiscuous, she was cruel, some sort of lesbian sadist and possibly even a Russian spy … Scurrilous but eminently readable,” wrote Marion McLeod (Listener, October 4).
PRAGUE PICTURES, by John Banville (Bloomsbury, $34.95).
Travel writing has become the sick man of publishing; so much of it is someone you don’t give a stuff about, stuffing around in some place and drawing attention to themselves. This lovely portrait of Prague, by Irish novelist John Banville, offers something intimate, and learned; of course, he talks of Kafka, but he also becomes engrossed in the bizarre jumble of junk collected by Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612): “plaster casts of lizards, spectacles, corals, amber and ivory boards for playing dice, shells of agate, cut-throat daggers, every kind of plate, musical clocks”, etc upon etc. Banville’s tour also sees him smuggling art out of Prague during the Communist regime, and ogling beautiful prostitutes after the “liberation”; there are dull patches, but for most of the time, you are there with him, right by his side.
COMPLICATIONS: A surgeon’s notes on an imperfect science, by Atul Gawande (Profile, $49.95).
In which a surgical resident, and writer for the New Yorker magazine, muses in a series of articles about his profession, and its moral dilemmas. “What makes a good surgical team, why nausea is so hard to treat, whether to err on the side of safety when doing so means amputating a fit young woman’s leg, how to deal fairly with sick people when they make bad decisions for themselves, whether machines are in fact more efficient than the human touch … The book is full of sometimes disturbing insights,” wrote Kim Hill (Listener, April 5).
THE ADULTERER’S BIBLE, by Cliff Fell (VUP, $24.95).
Great proof-reading errors of all time: a 1631 Bible was published with the instruction “thou shalt commit adultery”. The poems here are equally surprising: the love affair in the book’s magnificent sequence “Ophelia” is between a boy and his pet baboon (fact: Fell is New Zealand’s best-ever author of baboon poems). Like the adultery of his title, Fell’s poems are both fiercely enjoyable and morally dubious. Definitely for adults.
YOUNG KNOWLEDGE: The poems of Robin Hyde, edited by Michelle Leggott (AUP, $49.95).
With dozens of previously unpublished works on display and familiar poems freshly edited in new and reliable texts, Hyde now emerges as possibly the major poet of the decade and her early suicide in 1939 seems more than ever a tragedy. Hyde wrote herself into modernity through ceaseless experiment and practice; the moving poems she wrote in China are virtually a verse journal of her experience as a stranger in a strange land. This book is a major act of literary recovery.
LAZY WIND POEMS, by Graham Lindsay (AUP, $21.95).
In his seventh collection, Christchurch poet Graham Lindsay confirms that he is a poet of exceptional skill. He’s able to depict beauty, and evoke the transcendent with a reflex smoothness. His poems are a form of suburban pastoral, whether the subject is the birth of a son, or the conversations addressed to the back of his head during stints as a taxi driver, or just the lazy wind that draws him out to walk through his local neighbourhood.
THE BALLAD OF FIFTY-ONE, by Bill Sewell (HeadworX, $19.95).
The late Bill Sewell’s sequence about the 1951 waterfront lockout is a very welcome contribution to a literary genre necessary for a nation’s cultural well-being: satirical poetry. Probing and testing the temper of a particular time, it’s a model of how to turn political drama and conflict into well-wrought and resonant writing. The elegance and eloquence are absolutely in the tradition of that master satirist, Lord Byron.
THE EMPEROR OF SCENT: A story of perfume, obsession, and the last mystery of the senses, by Chandler Burr (Heinemann, $40).
Popular science writing at its best – enlightening, engrossing and laugh-out-loud funny. Luca Turin is a French biochemist with an exceptional sense of smell, a wicked way with words and a controversial new theory on how we smell. Burr’s story takes the form of a noble quest, with Turin the likeable but flawed hero (he’s completely barmy and swears like a French whore) and his enemy detractors, the nay-saying molecular biologists who refuse to believe him. A great story, with excellent momentum and elegantly written science.
SCIENCE: A history 1543-2001, by John Gribbin (Allen Lane, $26.95).
A treat for science geeks and history buffs alike, this 600-page chronological history of Western science takes us from Copernicus’s universe to Rutherford’s atom and on to Watson and Crick’s double helix. With plenty of grave-
robbing, papal inquisitors and secret societies to keep it spicy.
THE UNIVERSE: 365 DAYS, by Robert J Nemiroff and Jerry T Bonnell (Thames and Hudson, $74.95).
Or, the cosmos in hardback. Exclaim-aloud photos and chatty text for each day of the year from the Hubble Space Telescope, Voyagers 1 & 2, the Galaxy Redshift Survey et al. March 26 is the pulsar at the heart of the Crab Nebula; September 9 is the Black Hole near Sagittarius A; November 10 is the Earth in ultra-violet from the Moon. Everything from Aldebaran to the Virgo Cluster.
NATURE VIA NURTURE: Genes, experience and what makes us human, by Matt Ridley (Fourth Estate, $39.99).
Matt Ridley, the brilliant author of The Red Queen, surveys the latest thinking in the nature v nurture contretemps. His take? Of course, human behaviour is not all in the genes – but neither are we masters of our destiny. His description of the complexities of heredity, and the way that genetic effects are calibrated by experience (hence, nature via nurture), is calm, engaging and lucid.
PARASITE REX: Inside the bizarre world of nature’s most dangerous creatures, by Carl Zimmer (Arrow, $27.95).
Everything you ever wanted to know about parasites, but were too much of a host to ask. Zimmer is in love with parasites: he applauds their evil bastardry, he coos at their lifestyle – “Parasites have colonised the most hostile habitats nature has to offer, evolving beautifully intricate adaptations in the process.” Look, he says, parasites are the origin of sex, of so much life on this planet – and comes to New Zealand to prove it, in the unromantic shape of South Island mudsnails, which only ever, sluggishly, have sex so that their offspring will have a better chance of fighting off a parasitic worm. Zimmer’s book is squirming with similarly entertaining yarns.
NO SAFE HARBOUR, by David Hill (Mallinson Rendel, $16.95).
If bringing history alive is a virtue, you can’t get much better than this. Evocative, compelling and downright scary in its first-hand re-creation of the Wahine disaster, this book is a salutary reminder that, in any one year, some of the best writing is done for children. David Hill has been doing it for a long time and this is a triumph.
ROIVAN, by Glynne MacLean (Penguin, $16.95).
Part one of a young adults’ sci-fi series called The A’nzarian Chronicle follows the adventures of Roivan, an alien girl sent to teleport the void between the arms of the galaxy to find humans. Caught in the centre of a web of intergalactic political intrigue, she has a real power to make a difference in an adult world – so it should appeal to its intended teenage audience as much as it does to adult readers. It’s brilliantly imaginative and admirably gripping, but nowhere near as scary as its cover.
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE
PHOENIX, by J K Rowling (Bloomsbury, $49.99).
The plot-packed fifth Harry Potter instalment has some centaurs and dragon meat thrown in to disguise rather conventional origins, and it’s so long that it even wears our hero out. But there’s still plenty of life in Rowling’s series, especially now that Ron’s outgrowing the Invisibility Cloak and Harry’s started having teen domestics in teashops.
ALL I WANT IS EVERYTHING, by Cecily von Ziegesar (Bloomsbury, $18.95).
The latest in the racy Gossip Girl series, centred on teenage heroine Blair Waldorf, a little rich girl who does a lot of shopping, vomiting and gossiping. Kind of like Jackie Collins, but without the sex – and a hell of a lot funnier.
SOLID FOUNDATION, by David Katz (Allen & Unwin, $59.95).
An oral history of Jamaican reggae, told by more than 250 musicians, not all of whom are Rastafarians, and some who are not necessarily stoned. It’s a sprawling, fascinating story and Katz is a good-humoured and diligent guide: “One artist invited me to the countryside but neglected to tell me that on the return journey he and a colleague would be transporting a consignment of counterfeit Gucci bags and the largest quantity of marijuana I have ever seen.”
MR S: The Last Word on Frank Sinatra, by George Jacobs and Bill Stadiem (Macmillan, $59.95).
A memoir of Frank Sinatra, as told by his chauffeur. “We learn which hookers sported what is now termed a Brazilian wax, which celebs of the time had a big dick (Frank, of course), where Frank liked a girl’s lingerie (‘on the floor’), that Frank’s bedroom was plastered with photos of his one true love, actress Ava Gardner a decade after she had left him … A compelling, affectionate and brilliantly written portrait,” wrote Greg Fleming (Listener, August 30).
THE CLINTON WARS, by Sidney Blumenthal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $49.95).
This sturdy 800-page repositioning of the President is a strong case for Clinton’s place in history and a pedantic rebuttal of criticisms both major and minor. Bore your friends and enrage your enemies with this detailed reference for who said it, who did it and the special interest groups who paid them. Can also be read alongside Howard Kurtz’s Spin Cycle and George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human for a Zapruder-like triangulation of America’s first and last media-transparent presidency.
A LONG SHORT WAR: The postponed liberation of Iraq, by Christopher Hitchens (Plume, $26).
Collected journalism that articulates Hitchens’s grounds for supporting the invasion of Iraq. As one might expect of a man who called himself a Trotskyite until 1989, he’s at his best when his back’s to the wall. “Regime Change” is a polemical master-class: how to construct an argument, how to deconstruct the argument of an opponent: how to hold a position, when even the succour of minority support for one’s position is evaporating. Whatever one’s opinion of this year’s events in Iraq, Hitchens engages in a level of debate largely absent from his side of the argument, and this alone makes this short book a necessary read.
COLOUR, by Victoria Finlay (Sceptre, $29.99).
In which an art journalist writes about colour. Yes. She tells great stories about why some colours are so rare and so prized, and how colour is made into paint around the world in various cultures. “As Finlay explores the paintbox through her chosen rainbow of 10 major hues, she holds the reader in a warm, easy grip through transports both geographical and emotional … She does sweet justice to her obsessive interest, and delivers readers a charming gift, wrapped in affection,” wrote painter Grahame Sydney (Listener, July 19).
GOYA, by Robert Hughes (Harvill, $64.95).
Beautifully published art biography of the great Spanish poet of pain and howling agonies, by the great Australian critic who knows a thing or two about pain and howling agonies: writing about his near-fatal 1999 car crash, Hughes tells of how he lay in a coma and hallucinated about Goya. From there, he describes all Goya’s painting and graphic work, and places it in the cultural, religious, political and personal context of the time. Here he is on The Naked Maja: “Her smoothly rounded thighs and heavy, almost implausibly perky breasts … This is a sexy and straightforward girl … I could imagine few things more enjoyable than an afternoon romp on those lacy curtains with the maja, but de gustibus, et cetera.”
HOLLOWAY FALLS, by Neil Cross (Simon &Schuster,$29.95).
“Holloway is a totally screwed-up British bobby on the run with a sack full of money … There are basket cases in crumpled clothes in dreary streets in Bristol and Basingstoke, or supping warm pints in student pubs in Leeds or spooning Indian takeaways in North London lodging houses. Gloom and doom are everywhere… Only when this compelling narrative briefly touches down in Wellington, New Zealand, is there sweetness and light,” wrote Hedley Mortlock (Listener, September 13).
TRAITOR’S KISS, by Gerald Seymour (Random, $34.95).
Robert Mowbray, an old Cold War spy, scuttles back to duty. “Mowbray is that kind of Englishman who can order marmalade for breakfast in a Gdansk hotel and get it. He also insists on being loyal to ‘friends’ of the service like Viktor Archenko, a Russian naval officer who has been passing information to the Brits for five years – and has now been tumbled by Russian intelligence,” wrote Hedley Mortlock (Listener, July 19).
WHAT NOT TO WEAR, by Trinny Woodall and Suzannah Constantine (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $29.95).
The fab five from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy have staged a TV makeover takeover, but Trinny and Suzannah were the original wardrobe Nazis. Here the girls model the ghastly outfits themselves, and the text is full of hilarious warnings about what tops will make “udders take on a lumpy quality like badly made custard”. Good fun, and surprisingly informative.
A LIFE’S WORK, by Rachel Cusk (Fourth Estate, $21.99).
Mum’s not the word in this confessional book of ruminations on the no-man’s-land of early motherhood. Exquisitely neurotic, often bleak, but always mordantly funny, Cusk recounts the infantilisation of pregnancy and the exhausting, mind-altering interdependence of the first months with baby. Her novelist’s eye is a boon when eviscerating bossy child-care manuals and gruesome playgroups, but she’s even more compelling when confiding her unspeakable thoughts about her radically changed existence. She writes with botanical exactness, as if she’s sending postcards from another planet – which, in a sense, she is.
AJAX, THE DUTCH, THE WAR, by Simon Kuper (Orion, $29.95).
Shortlisted for – and should have won – this year’s William Hill sports book of the year award in England. Kuper studies the great Dutch football club Ajax Amsterdam during World War II, and wonders about its supposed, long-held Jewish sympathies; he broadens his history by telling heroic, hilarious and horrible stories of wartime football in England, France and Germany, in a kind of sequel to his 1994 masterpiece, Football Against the Enemy, which did win the Hill award.
TRACING THE ARC, by John Saker (Four Winds Press, $14.95).
Local sports book of the year. This is a relaxed, deceptive, manly and superbly remembered essay about basketball. Saker tells of his teenage passion for the sport, which led him to play professionally in the US; there is a Hoop Dreams kind of sadness and also a charming sense of affection: “In my mid teens, I discovered something I thought very beautiful. Like a lot of beautiful things in this country, it wasn’t out there on show, soaking up rays of national delight.”
TREASURY: The New Zealand Treasury 1840-2000, by Malcolm McKinnon (AUP, $50).
The most powerful government advisers in the land now have their own history. McKinnon shows how an institution of unimportant 19th-century clerks evolved through accountancy in the early 20th century into the abominable “no-men” economists who had a stranglehold on so much of government thereafter. The genial story is not without its Gothic elements, and it also has some intriguing personal details – among the Secretaries of the Treasury were a chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Union, a Grand Master of the Order of Freemasons and one who took ballet lessons to relieve stress. Superbly presented, and just the right size to throw at any Treasury official who has not time for history.
THE GREAT UNRAVELLING: Losing our way in the new century, by Paul Krugman (Viking, $35).
Who would have thought when the New York Times asked him to write a regular column, that eminent economist Paul Krugman would convert into one of America’s most gifted and crusading political journalists. George Bush and his administration are expertly and relentlessly savaged, in each op-ed that bristles with such words as “lying”, “mendacity”, “unscrupulous” and “fraud”. He has often been the first in the mainstream to identify the scandalous, which he presents with nary an acknowledgement to bipartisanship. If you can’t get to the Times for those two days a week when Krugman contributes, this book of the columns gives you the flavour of their vigour and insight. Oh, to be able to wake up to such writing in New Zealand.
THE LOST WORLD OF THE MOA: Prehistoric life of New Zealand, by Trevor and Richard Holdaway (Canterbury University Press, $169.50).
Okay, what a price. But as Tim Flannery, author of the acclaimed The Future Eaters, wrote: this book “documents in unprecedented detail the evolution of life in the strangest corner of our planet, the archipelago of New Zealand. Worthy and Holdaway [New Zealand scientists who work as independent scholars] are among the world’s leading palaeontologists, and in this book they have created a masterwork that will stand for years for those interested in the evolution of New Zealand’s vertebrate fauna.” This is as close as it gets to a live moa.
YEAR AWAY, by Graham Turbott (Department of Conservation, $35).
There is a breed of people who are fascinated by New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands; naturalist Graham Turbott spent a year on Enderby, though not of his own accord – the War Cabinet stationed him there in 1944 to keep a close eye on German and Japanese raiders. He didn’t see any. And so he filled in his time making detailed notes of bird life. Year Away is his journal, and his account of that strange year in that strange, bewitching place.
COUNTRY CHURCHES OF NEW ZEALAND, by Dan Donovan (New Holland, $39.95).
In which the artist takes a happy wandering through rural New Zealand, and dips his watercolour brush whenever he sees a country church he particularly admires – St John in the Wilderness, in Koromiko; Our Lady of the River, in Jacobs River; the Church of the Holy Innocents at Mt Peel; St John the Evangelist in Hira; and so, prettily, on.
LENI RIEFENSTAHL: FIVE LIVES (Taschen, $120).
The mad old bird died this year, aged 100; her legacy might best be enshrined in this large-format pictorial autobiography. There she is as a beautiful young dancer and actress. There are her later photographs of the Nuba tribe in the Sudan, and underwater marine life in the Indian Ocean. And, in between, there is her admiring, epic-scale stills photography of Hitler’s 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg, and the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Terribly evil, and terribly beautiful.
TARTS WITH TOPS ON: Or How to Make the Perfect Pie, by Tamasin Day-Lewis (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $59.95).
Try this for pies. The poet’s daughter, the actor’s sister, and the goddaughter of the author of the best book published in 2003 (Slipstream), is a star in her own right, and she ought to be a star in your kitchen: she does apple pie, apple hat, spinach and ham pie, Nigel Slater’s stilton, onion and potato frying-pan pie, salmon, leek and potato torte, bacon and egg pie, cheese and onion pie, Welsh chicken and leek pasties, gooseberry pie … “Pies,” she writes, “are the business.” Cleanly designed and illustrated, with unfussy recipes and a wonderfully sensual introduction: “The more I cook, the more I touch. I stab, I prod, I stroke, I turn, I feel, I squeeze, I massage.” Buy. Eat.
FEAST: A history of grand eating, by Roy Strong (Pimlico, $35).
Tuck in. The former director of the V&A Museum in London stuffs his superbly researched 300-plus pages with an anthro-pological and gastronomical study of dining through the ages – there’s the Last Supper, insane excess in ancient Rome (“Caligula liked his dinners to be enlivened by torture or decapitations by an adept soldier” – waiter, there’s a head in my soup), the elegance of Renaissance banquets; and so there’s much ado about seating arrangements and table manners, as well as fabulous menus.
Selected and written by Elizabeth Alley, Steve Braunias, Kate Camp, Christine
Cole Catley, Neil Cross, Brian Easton, David Eggleton, Chris Else, Jolisa
Gracewood, Charlotte Grimshaw, David Hill, Jane Hurley, Rachael King, Marion
McLeod, Julia Millen, “Beth Miller”, Jim Mora, Paula Morris, Jenny Nicholls,
Faith Oxenbridge, Rebecca Priestley, Peter Simpson, Jane Stafford, Stephen
Stratford, Chad Taylor and Denis Welch; edited by Steve Braunias.
Selected and written by Elizabeth Alley, Steve Braunias, Kate Camp, Christine Cole Catley, Neil Cross, Brian Easton, David Eggleton, Chris Else, Jolisa Gracewood, Charlotte Grimshaw, David Hill, Jane Hurley, Rachael King, Marion McLeod, Julia Millen, “Beth Miller”, Jim Mora, Paula Morris, Jenny Nicholls, Faith Oxenbridge, Rebecca Priestley, Peter Simpson, Jane Stafford, Stephen Stratford, Chad Taylor and Denis Welch; edited by Steve Braunias.