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The best books of 2011

Last updated 05:00 13/12/2011
Margaret Mahy
GOOD READ FOR KIDS: Margaret Mahy Treasury

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How to speak money Books about the surveillance state Winemaker takes top NZ literary prize Mary O'Hagan's memoir of madness Journey to a Hanging would be a great novel Vintage reads: The Call of the Wild Sports author turns to Kiwi crime fiction Auckland stories in line for prize Musings about the 2014 Booker shortlist Man Booker Prize short-list announced

Whether you're looking for something for the stocking or a book for the bach, we've rustled up the choicest reads for adults, teenagers and children.

CHILDREN'S BOOKS

It may be heresy, but even though I have been a judge of the New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, I don't believe there is such a thing as a best book. Every reader is different and their judgment of what is best won't agree with mine.

The seven books I have selected certainly all meet high standards of writing, illustration and design. I think they are all marvellous books, but the proof of best remains in the reading.

Take The Margaret Mahy Treasury, for example. With 11 stories and seven artists, it would take a brave reviewer to pick the best. A Lion in the Meadow came first, which makes it special, and The Witch in the Cherry Tree fires the imagination. I love Jam, because Margaret drew a crocodile in my daughter's copy, while everyone who has ever worked in a library adores The Librarian and the Robbers.

The Boy Who Was Followed Home has that perfect ending, and who can resist the rhythm and rumpus of A Summery Saturday Morning?

"Bad dogs, bad dogs chase the cat,

Chase the cat, chase the cat.

One dog's thin and the other dog's fat

On a summery Saturday morning."

The Call of the Kokako is not only 2011's most beautiful non-fiction book for young people, it is also the most informative. Writer Maria Gill and artist Heather Arnold, who produced the award-winning Rangitoto (2009), have developed a unique style of combining appealing artwork and imaginative text.

Their fresh approach has been classily supported by their publishers with a high-quality hard-cover book, which captures every aspect of this endangered bird.

The the kokako is superbly presented in eye-catching colour portraits, along with its forest habitat, natural enemies, maps, Maori legend and a ripping, true yarn about how a conservationist saved 10 kokako from the loggers.

Let's be honest. The jokes in 501 Great Kiwi Jokes are not great. Instead, they're those awful gags and puns that kids adore: "Which months have 28 days? All of them." You buy this one because it helps a good cause - Cure Kids - and endure the jokes as your youngster tries them all out. Take time, however, to look at Donovan Bixley's (donated) illustrations, which are brilliant.

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Bixley's work is seen at its best in his picture book Old MacDonald's Farm, where he has used the traditional song as a framework for a display of Kiwi culture. In one exciting day on the farm, every familiar Kiwi object, from a turkey in gumboots to Buzzy Bee, appears.

The double-page colour spreads are striking and witty, as is the detailing which allows the reader to follow each animal's preparations for the show, from pig's mud pack to the dog's baking. If you look carefully at MacDonald's sheep trailer, you'll see "DB rules" carved on the side. Donovan Bixley rules indeed.

Jenny Cooper is a talented and under-appreciated illustrator, who has created crazy animals for years. In her pictorial version of There's a Hole in My Bucket, an irascible duck and a passive- aggressive billy goat are engaged in a never-ending duel of wits. The accompanying CD features the Topp Twins, and the combination is hilarious.

A picture book that adults laugh at? A picture book about grammar? A funny book about grammar? Yvonne Morrison has pulled off the hat-trick with Mind Your Gramma!, an amusing book which will make grandparents laugh as much as the grandchildren they read it to.

Morrison has created some delightful moments of mutual misunderstanding between the generations, as Gramma tries to correct her granddaughter's grammar.

"Gramma asks me about my day, and I say, 'Me and my friend played soccer'. She says, 'My friend and I played soccer'. I say, 'At your age?' Gramma sighs."

Nikki Slade Robinson's illustrations capture the warm relationship between the pair and help make this the year's best example of good book design.

"Sometimes in the holidays, we go and stay with our relations. They live in the country. I love it there."

Chris Szekely's Rahui begins with a richly evocative description of long summer holidays in a small coastal Maori community:

"But best of all, we go to the beach! I love it at the beach."

Malcolm Ross's magnificent paintings show children playing on the sand, fishing, swimming and boating. Then tragedy strikes the community when a cousin, Thomas, drowns. We see the surviving children at the tangi.

"A rahui was put on the beach. We couldn't play there any more."

When a year has passed, Thomas's headstone is unveiled.

"The rahui was over. But our love remains."

The combination of the child's simple voice and Ross's richly evocative paintings produce a moving acceptance of life's joys and sadness.

Some of the most important fiction works are bridge books, junior novels that introduce readers to longer fiction.

Without young novels like Battle of the Birds, the future of reading is grim. Lee Murray has taken a strikingly fresh approach to an overfamiliar topic. Her jaunty heroine, Annie, carried back in time by a giant eagle, finds herself in an ancient Maori society where she can talk to both the birds and the people. The conflict among the birds, stirred up by the evil Haast eagle, Te Hokioi, and his fellow birds of prey, threatens the very survival of humans in Aotearoa.

Annie, whose arrival has been foretold, now has to battle to unite the rest of the birds to resist Te Hokioi.

The appeal of this story is that nobody speaks in the language of traditional fantasy. The birds are conversational:

"Why not join me for lunch? I've got some huhu grubs in."

Annie and her friends show great initiative as they try to save the gentle moa and the other birds.

Books as lively as Battle of the Birds reward young readers with a lifelong passion for books.-TREVOR AGNEW

ADULT FICTION

It has been a good year for the New Zealand historical novel. Owen Marshall's first dip into this genre, The Larnachs, is a compassionate treatment of the life of William Larnach, the Dunedin businessman and MP who built a "castle" on the Otago Peninsula and committed suicide in Parliament in 1898. The central scandal is adultery, between Larnach's young wife and his son from a previous marriage.

In her own historical fiction debut, Rangatira, Paula Morris finds a convincing voice for her tupuna, 19th-century Ngati Wai chief Paratene Te Manu. At its heart is a voyage to England.

Charlotte Randall's Hokitika Town is set on the muddy edge of empire in the same era, with Randall's young Maori narrator, Halfie, observing the town's eccentrics, publicans, procurers and prostitutes.

But Hamish Clayton's first novel, Wulf, might be the most imaginative and surprising of the four. In this poetic restaging of Te Rauparaha's savage attack on South Island Maori, an English sailor processes the raw strangeness of New Zealand by interpreting the massacre through Anglo-Saxon legend. It is an ambitious notion but Clayton's language is up to it.

Sarah Quigley's assured and no less ambitious The Conductor  set during the German siege of Leningrad, as Shostakovich composed his Seventh Symphony  would also make a strong bid for New Zealand novel of the year, while novelist and poet Ian Wedde's The Catastrophe was a return to form in which lively satire of celebrity food culture was balanced by powerful writing about the effects of the Palestinian exile.

In The Stranger's Child, his first novel since the 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty, British writer Alan Hollinghurst builds a country house novel around fictitious post-World War I poet Cecil Valance and his biographer, George Sawle. The Bloomsbury Group and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited are evoked in a work that Hollinghurst pulls off "with flair, wisdom and subtlety", according to reviewer Siobhan Harvey.

If Hollinghurst's novel was long-awaited, so too was David Foster Wallace's unfinished, posthumous novel The Pale King. Set in an Illinois branch of the Internal Revenue Service during the 1980s, the novel digs into the bureaucratic boredom of office life  a boredom some suspect is analogous to the depression that was Wallace's undoing.

In Ali Smith's satirical There But For The, set during a dinner party in Greenwich, London, a guest locks himself in a room and refuses to leave. Another guest works for a firm of solicitors called "Nasty, British and Short", which gives you a sense of Smith's comic verve.

In King of the Badgers, Philip Hensher has a more sinister satirical view of contemporary Britain: an eight-year-old girl is abducted from a small town that is almost entirely under CCTV surveillance.

In The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje mines semi-autobiographical material  a wide-eyed voyage from Sri Lanka to England in 1954  to relate a lyrical and persuasive child's eye view of the world.

In a good year for British fiction, Julian Barnes finally nabbed a long-deserved Man Booker for The Sense of an Ending, his short novel of memory and missed opportunity. -PHILIP MATTHEWS

ADULT NON-FICTION

In non-fiction, reviewer Siobhan Harvey picked Peter Wells' history The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso as one to watch in future New Zealand book awards. Colenso was a complicated Victorian figure  missionary, politician, translator, botanist, writer  and this intimate and thorough biography is enlivened by Wells' daring approach, "his tourist-like attempts to unearth the original Colenso homestead's location, photographs of the small and significant, poems, comments about meetings with Colenso whanau and, most interestingly, ruminations upon the evidences Colenso erased".

Other local non-fiction stand-outs? Peter Graham's So Brilliantly Clever is set to become the definitive account of the endlessly fascinating Parker-Hulme murder. Martin Edmond's Dark Night is a psycho-geographic journey through nocturnal Sydney by an expat Kiwi author, tracking the mysterious movements of Colin McCahon three decades earlier. Along with Peter Simpson's Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann, it could be the year's best local art book.

New Zealand lost one of its finest historians this year: Judith Binney. Her final book, Stories Without End, is an essay collection that compiles 35 years of writing about Maori history.

Wellington academic Harry Ricketts' idiosyncratic study of World War I poets, Strange Meetings, was praised by reviewer and poet Tom Weston: "It is clear that a considerable body of research lies behind Ricketts' collection Yet he wears this learning lightly and tells his story in an engaging and easy manner. And he adds a personal dimension."

The achievements of investigative journalist Nicky Hager's book about New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Other People's Wars, were sadly overshadowed by controversy and ad hominem attacks from politicians and others who should know better. Hager's account is much more balanced and rigorous than the coverage suggested.

From a crowded field, Fiona Farrell's The Broken Book could be the lasting work to come out of the Christchurch earthquakes: Farrell's planned book about walking and memory was derailed by seismic events, becoming "a poignant threnody about a lost city, lost dreams and the resilient human spirit".

Internationally, Walter Isaacson's authorised biography Steve Jobs caught a moment, but Isaacson didn't shy away from documenting the Apple guru's flaws. Tim Flannery's Here on Earth is a rare message of hope from an environmental prophet of doom. Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies is a "biography of cancer" that our reviewer, emeritus professor of pathology Robin Fraser, called wonderful and thought-provoking. -PHILIP MATTHEWS

Recon Team Angel Book 1: Assault by Brian Falkner is my book of the year. Earth has been invaded by Bzadians, who are only 1 per cent different to humans, but then so are chimpanzees. They call humans Scumbugz and we call them Pukes. They land in Australia and use it as a launch pad to take over the Earth and eliminate human beings. After a series of losing battles, humans strike back from North and South America. A group of highly trained teenagers disguised as Bzadians land near Uluru on a mission. What they find is incredible. Totally believable. Snappy dialogue, total action and dry humour make this a page turner.

The Scent of Apples, by new writer Jacquie McRae, is a beautiful story dealing with grief and growing up. Thirteen-year-old Libby misses her grandfather after his sudden death, and her parents' marriage is falling apart. Libby is growing up but is so locked in the past that she doesn't give the future a chance. When her mother sends her to a boarding school, she meets Charlie, a Maori girl with a brilliant family, who changes Libby's life forever.

Yes, by Deborah Burnside, is about Marty, a mildly autistic lad who is best friends with Luke, a boy with an artificial leg. Lots of jokes and pirate talk. With school friends and love interests Francesca and Emily, Marty and Luke enter a Young Enterprise Scheme in which they hope to make loads of money with just a bright idea. Yeah, right! Basic economics and teenage hormones come together. The novel is narrated in a literal manner by Marty and the humour is just wonderful.

Calling the Gods, by Jack Lasenby, is compelling reading as he returns to the same dark themes that characterised his brilliant We Were the Travellers series. Selene is only 15 when banished from her community. This community is then slaughtered by people from the South and Selene sails North with a group of young children to find their old homeland. The children experience love, courage, leadership and, alas, the more sinister side of the human condition - betrayal, jealousy and murder. This book is a manual for survival in a New Zealand-like environment.

Heart of Danger, by Fleur Beale, the third book in the series, develops the integration of the Tarians into Aotearoa. Juno and her sister, Hera, confront a dangerous religious cult and meet a new character, Nash, who is critical to their future. Juno's caring rebelliousness and changing emotions as she wrestles with first love will appeal to many. Beale slowly unravels the mystery of the creation of Taris and the personalities involved, and sets up a fourth and probably conclusive novel to the excellent series.

Vaclav & Lena, by Haley Tanner, outlines the fortunes of two families from 1990s Russia, settling in New York. Vaclav and Lena meet when they are aged five and become very attached to each other, learning things that no-one else will ever know. Vaclav wants to be another Houdini and he inveigles Lena into his fantasy. They part at age 10 and after a traumatic separation in which they think about each other all the time, are reunited at age 17. When they meet, the heat is on. Highly emotive writing in a four-part novel, narrated in turn by Vaclav, Lena and Vaclav's unforgettable mother, Rasia.

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi, is a thrilling, futuristic novel set in a world that has run out of oil, been ravaged by the effects of global warming and socially changed to a two-class society in which people are either filthy rich or living in poverty. Nailer is a skinny teenager who scavenges the wrecks of oil tankers for anything that will make money. He works for a ruthless Dickensian boss with the attitude that it is human nature to tear one another apart. The people live a miserable existence but still believe that their lucky break is just around the corner. The American Dream lives on. A US National Book Award Finalist 2011.

George and the Big Bang, by Lucy and Stephen Hawking, is a scientific fantasy explaining E=MC, the Big Bang theory, Newton's Laws of Motion, and the purpose of the Large Hadron Collider. These difficult concepts are brilliantly included in an adventure by children George and Annie as they time travel through a portal using a computer called Cosmos.

This is the third book in a series for children with a cosmological bent. It includes brilliant up-to-date photographs of the planets, Earth, Moon, and galaxies far, far away.

Girl Parts, by John M Cusick is a potential cult classic. Once teenage boys find out about this book, it will go round like wildfire. David's parents decide he has become disassociated after he watches a girl commit suicide on the internet. They get him a robot girl that is better than the real thing but is dedicated only to him. Her name is Rose, and she is absolutely gorgeous. Rose has an in-built intimacy clock to discourage dehumanising behaviour but all she is really doing is regulating his lust.

Wither, by Lauren Destefano, the first in the Chemical Garden trilogy, has a highly original plot that asks many ethical questions. Seventy years earlier, scientists created a perfect generation, free from diseases and allergies. While this generation remains healthy, its offspring suffer from an incurable virus that limits male lives to 25 years and female to 20 years. The rich Housemaster Vaughan kidnaps 16-year-old Rhine and two other girls for his son Linden to breed with, but Rhine is playing a canny game.

Ten outstanding novels. You would be mad not to read at least two.- BOB DOCHERTY

- The Dominion Post

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