Monday, December 10, 2007


Books Editor Finlay Macdonald asked his team of reviewers to send in their picks, here they are:

Some will shriek in horror that I'm choosing a self-help book, but for wit, grace, historical reach and literary flair this marvellously eccentric book left everything else trailing in its wake.
Worth a look just for the great anecdote about Pomus and Phil Spector eating together at a mob- connected Italian restaurant in the early 60s and seeing a fellow diner shot to death a few tables away.
THE BEST MAN WHO EVER SERVED THE CROWN? A Life of Donald McLean (VUP), by Ray Fargher.
Sixty years in the making. Masterly and authoritative. My pick for New Zealand book of the year.
Most enjoyed reading: This year I've spent hundreds of happy hours browsing online through 19th century New Zealand newspapers at The site has now been made searchable by keyword to facilitate one's obsessions.
Want most for Christmas: the new 2016-page Oxford edition of Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton's Collected Works, edited by Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino. Aucklander MacDonald P Jackson contributes one of the prefatory essays.

BLACK EARTH / WHITE BONES (Random), by Wellington writer Chris Else.
Set on the fictional Pacific island of Ventiak, this novel is a fine antidote to Mister Pip.
THE SEA-WRECK STRANGER (Longacre Press), by Anna MacKenzie.
There have been many brilliant New Zealand young adult novels published in 2007 - this is one of them. Post- apocalyptic and an inspiring read.
EDWIN & MATILDA (Penguin), by Laurence Fearnley.
I liked the unusual relationship between a girl who's got HIV and a much older man. Part of a loose trilogy set in the far south.
Most enjoyed reading this year: The Foretelling (2006), a young adult novel by American writer Alice Hoffman. An Amazon tribe of women. Cool horses. Fantastic story.
Want most for Christmas: the latest edition in the Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate series, Mrs Winter's Jump, by Jenny Bornholdt. Beautifully produced, a gem of a collection.

THE INDIAN CLERK (Bloomsbury), by David Leavitt.
Leavitt's best novel in years, a beautifully crafted story of an extraordinary platonic relationship.
HAVING IT SO GOOD: Britain in the Fifties (Penguin), by political historian Peter Hennessy.
The second part of his enchanting, captivating three-part history of post- war Britain. Why hasn't he got his own TV show like Simon Schama?
The politically incorrect Niall Ferguson blames last century's violence on the replacement of the multi-ethnic empires by racist empire- states such as Germany, Japan and Turkey.
Most enjoyed reading this year: Ka Taoka Hakena: Treasures From the Hocken Collections (Otago University Press), sumptuously designed by Jenny Cooper and full of fascinating tit-bits; perfect browsing material.
Want most for Christmas: Edmund White's Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel (Ecco Press) - like dark chocolate, too good to be gulped, to be savoured slowly.

RUN (Bloomsbury), by Ann Patchett.
My absolute favourite this year. Set in Boston, it's about human connectedness and caring - intelligent and uplifting.
RADIANCE (Virago), by Shaena Lambert.
Keiko, a young woman survivor of the Hiroshima bomb, is given facial reconstructive surgery in the United States in 1952. In the era of McCarthyism and H-bomb testing, her relationship with her host-mother Daisy is fascinating.
THE CARHULLAN ARMY (Faber), by Sarah Hall.
The most challenging and thought- provoking novel of the year, set in the near future, when the globe has warmed and the British social and economic order has collapsed, Sister joins an "unofficial" group of 60 women living a subsistence life high in the Cumbrian fells.
Most enjoyed reading: The Delivery Room (Picador), by Sylvia Brownrigg. Set at the time of the Bosnian war, the marvellous main character is a plump, middle-aged Serbian therapist Mira. While she counsels clients in London, her homeland is being bombed.
Most want for Christmas: Because I'm a bookseller I won't be getting books as gifts for Christmas! But there are three in particular that I will be giving away: Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears (MacMillan), by the brilliant Emily Gravett, which explores anxieties and phobias in a way that will delight three to 93-year-olds; The Uncommon Reader (Faber) by Alan Bennett, in which the Queen becomes hooked on books (and which contains some delightful jibes at NZ); and Edwin + Matilda (Penguin) by Laurence Fearnley, the delicate exploration of an unusual relationship, which is the best New Zealand novel of the year.

THE INDIAN CLERK (Bloomsbury), by David Leavitt.
This brilliant novel, centring on Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy's encounter with the obscure genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, was the most striking book of 2007 for me.
THE EARTH'S DEEP BREATHING (Godwit), edited by Harvey McQueen.
This well-tended, often surprising collection of garden poems by New Zealanders, set off by stunning design and illustration based on Gil Hanly's photographs, will give pleasure for years to come.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS: Kitchen Memoirs (Vintage), by Shonagh Koea.
Koea's multi-layered stories of her life, from surviving and escaping a childhood ruled by the rages of an inexplicably cruel bully to enduring and moving beyond the sudden death of her beloved husband George, are told with a spare restraint and finely honed dry wit which makes them all the more moving.
Most enjoyed reading this year: A Woman Unknown: Voices from a Spanish Life, Lucia Graves (Virago, 2000). From her childhood in Majorca to her married life in Barcelona, Robert Graves' daughter compassionately dissects what it meant to grow up under the uniquely repressive alliance of church and state that kept Franco in power for so long. A luminous book.
Most want for Christmas: I have devoured everything Kate Grenville has written, and if you haven't read Lilian's Story and Dark Places, do so immediately. But Santa slipped up two years running, so I still need The Secret River (Canongate) and now I want a bonus, the companion how-she- done-it, Searching for the Secret River (Canongate).

BURMA BOY (Jonathan Cape), by Biyi Bandele.
Catch-22 with a Nigerian twist; this novel is funny, heart-rending, sardonic and provoking.
DEVILS ON HORSES (Exisle), by Terry Kinloch.
Ride with our boys in their forgotten Lawrence of Arabia adventures of World War I. Good blokish Kiwi stuff, and by far the best battle history published in New Zealand this year.
THE SIXTH MAN (Vintage), by James McNeish.
This breathtaking account of Paddy Costello - a Kiwi writer, intellectual, Marxist (and spy?) - sets new standards for New Zealand biography. Provoking on many levels, a must- read.
Most enjoyed reading: Flashman On the March (HarperCollins) by George McDonald Fraser. Harry Flashman, former Rugby bully, coward, bounder and lecher, tangles himself with the British advance on Magdala in 1868. Rude, rampant - and Fraser the novelist has a better feel for the period than most non-fiction writers.
Want most for Christmas: The Life and Times of James Walter Chapman- Taylor (Millwood Heritage Productions) by Judy Siers, who spent years writing this book of heroic scale - physically and conceptually - about a fascinating New Zealand architect, spiritualist and secret cult member. And The Best Man Who Ever Served the Crown? A Life of Donald McLean. These days everybody's writing biographies of this scheming, complex, colonial-age government land buyer and Native Minister - I've got one on the go myself. Fargher looks to have set the bar very high.

SHAKESPEARE (Harper Press), by Bill Bryson.
A brief history of the bard.
THE ECHO MAKER by Richard Powers (US National Book Award finalist).
Addresses the question of how we know who we really are.
THROUGH THE CHILDREN'S GATE (Allen & Unwin), by Adam Gopnik.
Wise and well-told stories from New York about failed therapy, religion, cooking, football, shopping, friendships, 9/11 and apartment hunting.
Most enjoyed reading: Wild Mary: The Life of Mary Wesley (Chatto and Windus ) by Patrick Marnham.
Want most for Christmas: Edith Wharton (Knopf) by Hermione Lee: The definitive biography of one of America's greatest writers, from the author of the acclaimed Virginia Woolf.
ON CHESIL BEACH (Jonathan Cape), by Ian McEwan.
Shortlisted for the Booker, but failed to make the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Probably because there wasn't much sex to speak of in 1962. As the novel begins, "They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible." Short, sharp storytelling by a master.
THE YEAR OF HENRY JAMES (Penguin), by David Lodge.
When Lodge submitted a novel about Henry James to his publisher, he discovered to his horror that Colm Toibin had also written a very similar novel. Toibin's came out first and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Another Jamesian novel by Alan Hollinghurst won the Booker that year. Lodge's novel was left in the dust. This rueful account of weird literary coincidence, disappointment, embarrassment and professional jealousy is told with rare candour and humour.
THINK BEFORE YOU SWALLOW: The Art of Staying Healthy in a Health-Obsessed World (Penguin), by Noel O'Hare.
The thrill of walking into a bookshop and seeing your own first book on display. How could it not be a favourite? An antidote to "do we have a cure for you" self-help manuals, this is the only health book this year to cite Simenon, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Updike, Sartre, Salinger, Chomsky, my mother, Hitler and Donald Trump. "A terrific read!" wrote reviewer Rob Southam. And he's not even a relative.
Most enjoyed reading: Terrorist (Penguin) by John Updike.
At 75, John Updike can still make most contemporary novelists appear to be struggling with English as a second language. His portrait of post 9/11 America is etched with laser precision.
Want most for Christmas: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Knopf) by Oliver Sacks - probably won't explain the attraction of Barry Manilow but Sacks' insights into the workings and misfirings of the brain have always been fascinating.

EDWIN + MATILDA (Penguin) by one of my favourite New Zealand novelists, Laurence Fearnley.
Stayed with me long after I read the final page. Fantastic story and lovely, lovely writing, it made me cry like a little girl.
Most enjoyed reading: The Magus by John Fowles - incredibly strange, and kept me guessing right to the very end. Wilderness Tips (Anchor) by Margaret Atwood, a collection of short stories, had me glued to the sofa for most of a day as I tore through it.
The Heart Garden (Random House), Janine Burke's biography of Sunday REED, PATRONESS, champion of AUSTRALIAN MODERNISM, lover of Sydney Nolan and borderline nutbar, was the best of the many biographies I read this year.
Want most for Christmas: Audrey Eagle's Eagle's Complete Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand (Te Papa Press) because I love to garden but hate it when someone asks me what something is and I have to tell them it's "a thingy". And an arty graphic novel such as Audrey Niffenegger's The Three Incestuous Sisters in my stocking wouldn't go amiss either, Mr SANTA.

WHARE RAUPO: The Reed Book Story (Reed), by Gavin McLean.
Fascinating, sometimes turbulent history of New Zealand's most iconic publishing house, published in May to coincide with the company's centennial. Alas, the 100th year proved to be the last.
MISTER PIP (Penguin), by Lloyd Jones.
After winning both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana NZ Book of the Year Award, Jones's masterpiece became the odds-on- favourite to win the Man Booker Prize but was beaten at the post by bleak Irish novel, The Gathering. A great piece of imaginative writing, and Jones will be back with even better.
THE ROAD (Picador), by Cormac McCarthy.
One of the most bleak novels read this year but also one of the most poetic. Utterly superb writing by a master at the top of his game.
Most enjoyed reading: CLOUDSTREET (Penguin) by Tim Winton - the 1991 Miles Franklin Award winner which

Most wanted for Christmas: MAGGIE'S HARVEST (Lantern), by Maggie Beer. One can never have too many cookbooks! This one has 350 recipes- gorgeous too with an embroidery-like cover.

HOW TO WATCH A BIRD (Awa Press), by Steve Braunias.
OK, he's a mate, but it really is a small and perfectly formed jewel. It's really about his bird and waiting for their fledgling to hatch, but it's also an hilarious and sometimes moving mini- social history of our birdland.
THE GHOST (Hutchinson), by Robert Harris.
Barely disguised hatchet job on Tony Blair wrapped in a master thriller writer's taut narrative, and a cruel satire of the publishing industry to boot.
THE GUM THIEF (Bloomsbury), by Douglas Coupland.
A tragi-comic exploration of the truth and beauty buried beneath the humdrum, dead-end, soulless landfill of modern consumer society. An anti- inspirational text for survivors of the self-help generation. Eccentric, technically ambitious, sardonically pitch perfect.
Most enjoyed reading: The Road (Picador) by Cormac McCarthy - devastating, both as apocalyptic study of human nature and as literature. Despite its "bleak" premise, a riveting page-turner. Utter genius. And The Secret River (Canongate) by Kate Grenville - stunning Australian historical fiction, closer to the truth, one suspects, about the origins of that nation's confounded race relations than any number of hand-wringing treatises.
Want most for Christmas: Searching for the Secret River (Canongate), also by Grenville, the story of how she researched her own family story as material for the novel.


Went beyond blueprints into weird religions and extramarital affairs.
LIGHT FANTASTIC (HarperCollins), by Georgina White.
Revealed the elegance of social dancing.
A NEST OF SINGING BIRDS: 100 Years of the New Zealand School Journal (Learning Media), edited by Gregory O'Brien.
Stylishly recalled a golden age of inadvertent government patronage of writers and artists.
Most enjoyed reading: Never Had It So Good and White Heat (Little, Brown) by Dominic Sandbrook - an epic, engrossing two-part history of Britain from the Suez crisis to the end of the swinging 60s. He mixes politics and pop culture to offer some clarity to an era usually obscured by cliche and myth. Sandbrook was born in 1974.
Song For My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black & White (Other Press) a memoir by Tom Sancton, who crosses his segregated city for clarinet lessons, 50 years before Hurricane Katrina. And Love is a Mix Tape (Crown) by Rob Sheffield is a grunge-accompanied love-letter to his wife, also a music critic, who suddenly dropped dead at 29.
Want most for Christmas: Absolutely MAD (Git Corp), 50 years of humour in a jugular vein - a 2 DVD set, would sit comfortably between the complete New Yorker and Rolling Stone magazines, also archived on DVD. MAD's film parodist, Mort Drucker, could take his rightful place beside the legendary critic Pauline Kael.

THE DAMNED UTD (Faber), by David Pearce.
Best football novel ever written. Based on a season in hell, when Brian Clough was appointed manager of Leeds in 1974 but was sacked after 44 days. It very properly reeks of booze and fags and bad English food.
NATURAL HISTORY (Simon & Schuster), by Neil Cross.
The only thing anyone should have against Stephen King is that he can't write. Neil Cross can write; he attempts a novel of the macabre and the possibly supernatural, and does it brilliantly.
It's evil, tense, extremely physical, and the finish leaves you feeling sick as a dog, though not quite as sick as the dog in Cross's book.
THE BIRDS AT SHIRLEY LINKS (Griffin Press, Christchurch), by Peter Law.
The good doctor - Law is a former GP in Otematata and Twizel - expertly navigates himself around the golf course at Shirley, Christchurch, in search of birds. Example: "On a sunny afternoon I saw what was clearly a Pied Shag flying down the 8th fairway." An intimate, charming field guide, with illustrations by Derek Onley.
Most enjoyed reading: The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene: When I last read this 1940 classic a good five, six years ago, I thought it was a masterpiece. Re-reading it, I thought: this is a masterpiece.
The priest on the run, the lump of sugar in the mouth of a dead child, the execution scene - every page is evidence of genius.
Want most for Christmas: Ainsley's Big Cook-out, by Ainsley Harriott. Memorable not just because of the outrageous double-entendre of the title, this 2003 cookbook will be my Christmas present to myself - and my family. It's got a really good recipe for barbecued lamb chops in it.

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