The best books of 2010

Keith Richards: Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Keith Richards: Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

Stuck for a Christmas gift? Our picky reviewers recommend 85 books perfect for Santa's sack.


Room by Emma Donohue (Little, Brown)

Brilliant evocation of a child born as a prisoner who becomes the vehicle of escape for his brutalised young mother. Shines a harsh light on unwanted celebrity and post-traumatic suffering.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (Granta)

If you blended Isaac Bashevis Singer with Anton Chekhov and Jon Stewart, you might get Gary Shteyngart, but it still wouldn't be as poignant, funny and painful as this author.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate)

He set out to write the great American novel and he did, reviving the form and becoming the chronicler of America's downtrodden well-meaning liberal upper class.

Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury)

The vegetarian cookbook I'd been waiting for. The photographs are gorgeous, the recipes inspiring.

Gifted by Patrick Evans (VUP)

Perfectly captures a specific time in New Zealand's nascent literary life by depicting the strange but gorgeous early relationship between Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame.


Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (Corvus)

One man's journey to the heart of darkness on Hamburger Hill. A stunning meditation, years in the writing, based on personal experience in the Vietnam War.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate)

Also years in the making, this is Franzen's sequel to the amazing The Corrections. Puts Franzen in the pole position of US novelists.

Traitor by Stephen Daisley (Text)

Terrific debut from NZ writer based in Australia. One soldier's act of courageous compassion at Gallipoli sees him branded as a traitor. But who betrayed whom? Exquisitely crafted and beautifully written.

The Human Chain by Seamus Heaney (Allen & Unwin)

Muscular and earthy, this is vintage Heaney. Proof of the Nobel-winner's poetic gift.

The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago (Harvill Secker)

The Portuguese Nobel-laureate's enchanting and witty fable, based on a true story. A hymn to the radicalism of art.


Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor (Harvill Secker)

The most convincing historical novel of the year is the Irish novelist's tale of an actress remembering her brief Dublin glory days before she was old, tired and drink-sodden. Sense of place and person is pitch-perfect.

The City and the City by China Mieville (Pan)

A police procedural redolent of both Kafka and Orwell in its dystopian take on a divided city. A sustained feat of the adult imagination.

The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare by Robert Winder (Little, Brown)

Fun piece of fluff. The author thumbs his nose at both the reader and historical probability in this raucous, silly and entertaining tale of William Shakespeare and his mates getting together to write a subversive play.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein (Atlantic)

More a sustained philosophical argument than a novel, but a good one, concerned as much with American Jewishness as with God.

Encircled Lands: Te Urewera 1820-1921 by Judith Binney (Bridget Williams Books)

Fully deserving of the prizes it has won. New Zealand's outstanding work of historical research this year. Not just the story of Tuhoe resistance to invasion, but the story of a whole culture.

Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed (Penguin)

The chilling but true tale of how four bankers, in 1929, managed to turn what could have been a mild recession into a full-scale depression.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro (Simon & Schuster)

Both very scholarly and very readable, the perfect squelch for anyone who still believes theories about someone other than Shakespeare writing Shakespeare's plays.


Amulet by Roberto Bolano (Picador)

Break your teeth on the altar of human sacrifice, and remember: "Nothing good ever comes of love. What comes of love is always something better. But better can sometimes mean worse."

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape)

Love it or loathe it, Amis whispers your story to you as he tells his. This is life: a helix of readers' and writers' fictions.

Mr Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler (Vintage)

Published in 1995, but the best book I read all year. Part profile of David Wilson, founder of the Museum of Jurassic Technology; part argument for the pursuit of wonder.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (Fourth Estate)

You might need a little of Wilson's "ironylessness" when you read this superb new novel about an art dealer questioning his sexuality, and discover you're living a life-imitates-art cliche.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition, University of Chicago Press)

An update of a constant and faithful companion.

Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa by Tina Makereti (Huia)

One of three "new" New Zealand short story writers to publish their first collections this year (alongside Pip Adam and Craig Cliff). Makereti magpies from and refreshes Maori myths, delighting with her clever, light touch.


Private Life by Jane Smiley (Faber & Faber)

Quietly brilliant reworking of Middlemarch set in early 20th-century America.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell (Fourth Estate)

Way after everyone else, I finally managed to tackle this virtuoso recreation of Thomas Cromwell's England and was hooked – historical fiction at its very best.

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds by Lyndall Gordon (Virago)

With her usual insight and empathy, Gordon makes convincing sense of this most elusive of poets, and illuminates the hidden life of her apparently upright family.

These I Have Loved: My Favourite New Zealand Poems by Harvey McQueen (Steele Roberts)

He's my husband so I'll just quote Graham Beattie: "A marvellous, eclectic collection as you would expect from one whom I suspect has poetry running in his veins... a must-have for all who love poetry or would like to love poetry."

The Parihaka Album by Rachel Buchanan (Huia)

This beautifully written book combines the personal and the historical to work out a genuinely original and important new approach to the meaning of Parihaka and its long aftermath.


The Empty Family by Colm Toibin (Picador)

Lyrical tales of exile and regret that manage to tell us so much more about the world.

Nemesis by Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape)

The master is back to his best, with a familiar struggling protagonist and even jokes.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Hodder & Stoughton)

Love story in 18th century Japan with usual verbal wizardry but mature restraint.

The Night Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage)

Political-minded novel treads perfectly between fact and fiction.

Quinine by Kelly Ana Morey (Huia)

Funny, brilliant historical drama by Kiwi author.

A Man Melting by Craig Cliff (Random House)

Quirky, funny stories from a local writer to watch.

Great House by Nicole Krauss (WW Norton)

The taking away of a desk brings questions of loss and memory.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Headline)

Captivating tale about the end of slavery.

99 Ways into NZ Poetry by Paula Green and Harry Ricketts (Random House)

A much-needed compendium-overview that works the way poets do, by letting readers dip in and out.

The Imperfect Girlfriend by Lucy-Anne Holmes (Pan)

A chick-lit novel to erase all the crappy sappy chick lit that's gone before.


Life by Keith Richards (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Loads of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, written terrifically. What more could you ask for?

Being Wrong by Kathryn Shultz (Granta)

The history, philosophy and psychology of human fallibility.

The Tasman by Neville Peat (Penguin)

Classily produced and written account of our great watery divide.

No Fretful Sleeper by Paul Millar (AUP)

Compassionate and sometimes revelatory bio of literary outsider Bill Pearson.

The Torchlight List by Jim Flynn (Awa Press)

Not because his list of 200 great books that taught him about the world is unassailable, but because his motive is pure – to pass on the love of reading.

Blue Smoke by Chris Bourke (AUP)

We forget our history and our culture all too easily. Bourke's account of popular music from 1918 to 1964 brilliantly rights that wrong.

Storyteller by Donald Sturrock (Harper)

The biography that Roald Dahl fans have been waiting for.

Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury (Harper)

A delightful tale of business, philanthropy and cocoa beans.

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann (Profile)

A clarion call for those who value secular society.

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens (Allen & Unwin)

Hitch's memoir of sorts is fascinating, indulgent, infuriating, but never dull.

The Illustrious Dead by Stephan Talty (Scribe)

Masterful account of how typhus killed Napoleon's army.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (Granta)

How people really live in North Korea.

Best of Both Worlds by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (Penguin)

Exploration of 18th century Maori ethnography is our history at its best.


Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (Text)

This young adult title is a little bit like Glee, only older and wiser and in book form. It will make you laugh out loud and loathe yourself for it.

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie (Random House)

Rushdie's gift to his youngest son captures that moment when adults win over children by tapping into the child within.

Ink Death by Cornelia Funke (Chicken House)

It's been out a while but the last in the Inkheart trilogy from this German children's author is still being devoured by tweens everywhere.

The Wheels on the Bus by Donovan Bixley (Hachette)

Kiwi take on the classic song, beautifully illustrated and informative on local animals.

The Grub by Jack Gabolinscy (Picture Puffin)

A much-requested story about a messy little boy. It doesn't end up as you expect.



Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland (Text)

A funny, big-spirited book, permeated with affection and respect for the Northern Territory and its people.

Surrender by Donna Malane (NZSA)

Missing persons expert Diane Rowe makes an engaging narrator, while a scenic, seedy Wellington furnishes a distinctive local ambience to amusing and entertaining read.

Hunting Blind by Paddy Richardson (Penguin)

The evocative opening, describing an idyllic community picnic at Lake Wanaka in 1988, heightens the gut-wrenching impact when a four-year-old girl is found to have disappeared. The protagonist is a trainee female psychiatrist resident in Dunedin.

The Fallen by Ben Sanders (HarperCollins)

A fast-paced thriller with two laconic, tough, male protagonists and a strong sense of place. The City of Sails, with its perennial traffic woes and moody weather, plays a starring role.

The Reversal by Michael Connelly (Allen & Unwin)

Features the quietly formidable LAPD detective Harry Bosch, as well as some enjoyably nerve-racking trial scenes.

Caught by Harlan Coben (Orion)

While often laugh out-loud funny, it addresses serious topical issues about justice in an age of trial by blog.

Never Look Away by Linwood Barclay (Orion)

Effectively plays on the enduring punishments and unforeseen repercussions of past crimes.


The Ihaka Trilogy by Paul Thomas (Hachette)

Laugh-out-loud-hilarious, satisfyingly complicated and flat-out intelligent three-in-one thriller re-release.

61 Hours by Lee Child (Bantam)

Rollicking, complex Jack Reacher, even better than his follow-up, To Die For.

The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi (Abacus)

Twisting plot, heart-stopping chases, intriguing forensic analysis from Italian author – my best of the year.



Martin Bosley by Martin Bosley (Random House)

Interesting and challenging recipes, illustrated with stunning food photography. A watershed moment in NZ cookbook history.

French Lessons by Justin North (Hardie Grant)

Demystifies, step-by-step, the intricacies of la cuisine Francaise. Written clearly and concisely. Use this as a textbook to teach yourself French cookery in the Antipodean style.

Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury)

Fresh vegetarian food with global flavours, beautifully presented. This book will revolutionise your summer barbecue salads.

At Elizabeth David's Table complied by Jill Norman (Michael Joseph)

Even though there is nothing new in this collection of Elizabeth David's most accessible recipes, its importance lies in introducing one of the world's most influential cookery writers to a new generation.

Tender 2 by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate)

My Christmas No 1 author for the second consecutive year: no one writes better about food than Slater. His passion for what he does shines through in his prose, and his recipes actually work.

Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me by Denis Cotter (Collins)

Cotter's witty and readable book of vegetarian recipes will challenge you to think about the provenance of your food.

Food of the Sun by Neven Maguire (Collins)

This unassuming Irish chef's sixth book is a guide to good flavour, ingredient combinations and as a source of great base recipes.



Tatau: Samoan Tattoo by Mark Adams, Sean Mallon, Peter Brunt, Nicholas Thomas (Te Papa Press)

Photographs that make you feel like you were there: ordinary homes where extraordinarily bloody and beautiful art is made.

Artists @ Work: New Zealand painters and sculptors in the studio by Richard Wolfe and Stephen Robinson (Penguin)

Lifting the roller doors, wooden blinds and (paint-spattered) curtains on local artists. Fabulous photographs and writing that gives an insight into the "how" as well as the "why" of the artist's work.

An Expanding Subterra by Wayne Barrar (Dunedin Public Art Gallery)

Peopleless photographs that reward on first, second, third (and still counting) glance. Surprisingly haunting.


At Home by Bill Bryson (Doubleday)

Diverting history of how our houses came about.

Home Work by Patrick Reynolds and John Walsh (Random House)

Elegant work in which architects talk about the design choices in their own houses.

Inspirational Gardens of NZ by Kristin Lammerting (Viking)

Diverse collection of Kiwi greenery is true to its title.



The Passage by Justin Cronin (Orion)

Epic post-apocalyptic vampire saga that has so many twists and turns that it leaves you (blood) lusting for more.

Linden's Last Life by Alan Cohen (Hay House)

Spellbinding tale of a man who wants to end his living hell only to discover that he has to find out how to live in order to die.

My Name Is Memory by Ann Brashares (Hodder & Stoughton)

A love story where the tangled web unravels itself over multiple lifetimes.



Superfoods by David Wolfe (Blue Snake)

Feed the body properly and you nourish the soul. The bible of nature's healthiest natural foods.

Be The Change by Ed and Deb Shapiro (Sterling Ethos)

The Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, Jack Kornfield, Dan Millman and Lama Surya Das, among others, remind us that the only way out of conflict is within.

The Shadow Effect by Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford and Marianne Williamson (HarperCollins)

Three of the most prominent authors in the mind, body, spirit genre explore why the dark side of human nature must be reconciled if we are to live a fully expressed life.

Sunday Star Times