We've been gathering the best of the year since 2000. So it's key to the door etc - 21 years of Best Books / Fave Reads. See all the Yearly Besties.
And herrrrrrrre's mine.
In a splendid year for books, my best of the year was a surprise: Anthropology and a hundred other stories by Dan Rhodes is filled with short sharp stories that will blow your mind. Other favourites include Face forward by Kevyn Aucoin with makeup ideas and stunning star portraits (Tori Amos as Mary Queen of Scots, Gywneth Paltrow as James Dean). Experience, a memoir by Martin Amis was warm and involving. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood was a well deserved Booker winner.
As meat loves salt by Maria McCann – intense and dramatic historical fiction; House of leaves by Mark Danielewski – terrifying mindbender; Divinely decadent by Stephen Calloway – to die for style; A circle of sisters by Judith Flanders - an absorbing biography of a famous family
I don't think I wrote the descriptions for 2002 and 2003's picks, but these would have been my selections.
- The Crimson petal and the white Michel Faber. This Dickensian jaunt is set in 1870s London, and the action centres on an ambitious young whore named Sugar, whose fight to escape her predicament brings her into the extended family of a perfume magnate.
- The Eyre Affair Jasper Fforde. In this alternate 1985, dodos are regenerated in home-cloning kits and everyone is disappointed by the ending of Jane Eyre. In this Britain, culture is supreme (not soccer) and supporters of the Surrealists fight with French impressionists. Time travel is possible and Thursday Next is a special operative in literary detection who battles a villain who is kidnapping favourite literary characters.
- The Amber spyglass Philip Pullman. The third volume of Philip Pullman's critically acclaimed fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. Along with the return of Lyra, Will, Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, Dr. Mary Malone, and Iorek Brynison the armoured bear comes a host of new characters: the Mulefa, mysterious wheeled creatures with the power to see Dust; Chevalier Tialys and Lady Salmakia, hand-high spy-masters to Lord Asriel; and Metatron, a fierce and mighty angel. So, too, come startling revelations: the painful price Lyra must pay to walk though the land of the dead, the haunting power of Dr. Malone's amber spyglass, and the names of who will live - and who will die - for love. And all the while, war rages with the Kingdom of Heaven, a brutal battle that will uncover the secret of Dust.
- Brick Lane by Monica Ali. A classic novel in the Dickensian mode, this is the story of Nazneen, who leaves her Bangladeshi village for an arranged marriage to an older man and life in the East End of London. By endowing her characters with all the complexities humans are capable of and then exploring how they live Ali can tackle the big questions of love, honesty and betrayal with simplicity and truth. An extraordinary novel.
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Atwood has taken readers to the future before in The handmaid's tale, and the news hasn't got any better. Here experiments in bioengineering have got way out of hand and the apocalypse has left one man still alive. Chilling, disturbing and bleak, this is an important novel by one of the great authors of our time.
- The time traveler's wife by Audrey Niffeneger. Imagine if you were at the mercy of time; dropped from the present to the past at the most inconvenient moments, naked and alone. This is the premise of this charming story that crosses three genres: science fiction, love story and realistic character study. Henry Detamble works at a library in Chicago and randomly finds himself at different places in the past and the future. Told from the alternating points of view of Henry and his wife Clare, this is an unusual and fascinating book.
Ill-equipped for a life of sex: a memoir by Jennifer Lehr
I think I picked up this book to laugh at the title and to have a look at its cool collage-y looking cover. But as soon as I opened it... I can't think of any memoir I have read that is so bone-shakingly honest. More than any self-help book or relationship guide, Jennifer's story cuts to the essence of human relationships. We learn all about her life, her family, early laughable romantic entanglements, and her troubled relationship with the man she loves:
What did I want? I wanted more love. What did John want? He wanted more space. And what is the one thing that will keep someone who wants more love from someone who wants more space from getting the love they want? Not giving the one who wants more space, more space. By that time in my life I certainly understood that basic relationship equation shatters the ideas of romantic love and happily ever after, yet somehow arrives at something real and raw and beautiful.
The Bomb: a life Gerard de Groot
My book of 2005 - it is all there; splitting the atom, Manhattan Project, scientists irradiating themselves, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, and the U.S. setting off bombs and frying poor Japanese fishermen who happened to be in wrong place at wrong time. One soldier told how they were near the bomb blast and could see the bones of their hand a la an x-ray from the flash. Another story told how some cows had the hair scorched off their back and when it grew back it was colourless. D.R.
My favourite books this year have been non-fiction.
Female chauvinist pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture by Ariel Levy
If you think feminism has passed by the likes of Paris Hilton, you may be right. Ariel Levy looks at the Playboy "Girls gone wild" culture we seem to have emerged into.
Mary Queen of Scots and the murder of Lord Darnley by Alison Weir
Weir delves into the mystery of the death of Mary Queen of Scots sexy blonde husband Darnley. A good example of history written with intelligence and an eye for drama and intrigue.
The Timewaster letters by Robin Cooper
Ingenious and hysterically funny, Cooper brings his quirky wit to writing letters to businesses and organisations. See Cooper's website for more silly stuff.
One of my favourite series came to an end this year. The Sons of Heaven is the last of the amazing Kage Baker's Novels of the Company, and it was a rich and satifsying climax (unlike the final of The Sopranos ...). Gold by Dan Rhodes was funny and quirky and moving. The graphic novel series Y: The last man and Ex Machina have kept me hanging out for more. An unexpected find was Undressing Emmanuelle by Sylvia Kristel. She has an unusual poetic writing style. An earlier sex symbol's story is told in The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman. Imperial Life in the emerald city: inside Iraq's green zone has deserved all the awards attention it has garnered - it's utterly riveting. And finally I'd recommend They call me naughty Lola to anyone who wants to laugh out loud. It brings together personal ads from The London Review of Books:
'I like my women the way I like my kebab. Found by surprise after a drunken night out and covered in too much tahini. Before long I'll have discarded you on the pavement of life, but until then you're the perfect complement to a perfect evening. Man, 32, rarely produces winning metaphors.'
There are a bunch of good books to come in 2008 (I have high hopes for both Peter Ackroyd and Michel Faber) but so far here’s the ones that have stuck with me. Fiction wise it’s The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. The books couldn’t be more different - a British dystopian watery world of military spareness, and a Dominican American tragi-comedy. But wow, both are utterly absorbing, unputdownable. Both writers were at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. I laughed my head off to Bonk: The curious coupling of science and sex by Mary Roach. It’s as naughty and smart as the title suggests. But my book of the year is Perfumes: the guide - Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. This book is so essential I bought my own copy, and it’s not going on the bookshelf because I look at it too often for that.
As a mad keen Pre-Raphaelites fan I did love Desperate Romantics: the private lives of the Pre-Raphaelites by Franny Moyle. There’s not much better than a good old fossick behind the scenes of a lot of stunners and nutters like those boys and girls.
- Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club is a wildly funny booky extravaganza. You’ll never look at a Mills and Boon the same.
- Just kids Patti Smith. A thoughtful, poetic jewel of a memoir from the surprisingly gentle music icon.
- The Road Cormac McCarthy. Brutal, beautiful, heart-tearing.
- Little hands clapping Dan Rhodes. Deviously clever and gruesome stuff from my favourite author.
- Alexander McQueen: genius of a generation Kristin Knox. To be honest, I just looked at the pictures. But when this means taking in Alexander McQueen’s visionary work, what more do you need.
- How to wreck a nice beach: The vocoder from Stalin to Frampton to Bambaataa Dave Tompkins.Madly fascinating musical history with lots of political intrigues.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot. The fascinating story of the woman whose DNA has shaped medicine.
- Stet Diana Athill. Diana Athill rules.
- Hicksville Dylan Horrocks. One of the great Kiwi pieces of fiction. A graphic novel that even people who don't 'do' graphic novels might love.
- Packing for Mars: The curious science of life in the void Mary Roach. Smart laughs. Mary Roach combines science and humour in an irresistible way.
View my Best Reads of 2011 booklist
- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson. This is my book of the year - honest, compelling, and a tad brutal. It is also the best paean to reading I've encountered. Books can (and do) change her life.
- The Perfume Lover: A Personal Story of Scent Denyse Beaulieu. The description sounds a a tad cheesy, but this book isn't. It's fascinating stuff. It explores Denyse Beaulieu's perfume history, and also the creation of a perfume: "Séville à l’Aube is the passionate story of a romance during the Holy Week, in the most captivating city of Andalusia. Told by a writer to master perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, it awakened his senses and lead to the creation of this stunning soliflore, a sublime orange blossom, alive with contrasts."
- Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age Rebecca Priestley. Science and history brought together in an interesting and readable way.
- The Age of Miracles Karen Thompson Walker. This book is astonishing. I read it in two sittings yesterday, I woke up at 1am and finished it with relish. The combination of the natural/unnatural disaster, people's behaviour, and the nostalgic perspective of a young woman looking back at herself aged 11 - and a world that is inutterably changed. Elements of it called to mind living in Christchurch during the earthquakes - life not as a "new normal" but a strange variation and continual adaptation.
- Dior Joaillerie Michelé Heuzé. This book is utterly sumptuous with photographs that make you wish you had a wallet full of Euros. Exquisite.
- Tim Walker: Story Teller. This book is full of beautiful and dreamy images. Tim Walker's photos use elaborate sets and exquisite fashion to show scenes of imagination run gorgeously amuck. Read Look at moi! a blog post on fashion photography books.
View my Best Reads of 2012 booklist
- Pulphead: Dispatches from the other side of America John Jeremiah Sullivan. This could well be my book of the year, already. That's what I said back in January - and now it is November and it is still up there. I think the title and the cover don't really help explain it - but the subtitle does "Dispatches from the other side of America". Cave drawings, Axl Rose, Michael Jackson, having your house used for a telly show, animals turning against it - each chapter delves into something unique and the genius of John Jeremiah Sullivan is to make each unique, as well as uniquely interesting
- Marbles: Mania, depression, Michelangelo, and me Ellen Fornay. In a year of stellar comics, this one is the standout for me. You just can't argue with its honesty and curiosity. It reveals a lot about the author / artist Ellen, but also about manic depression and creativity.
- I would die 4 u: Why Prince became an icon Touré. This book was an unexpected find, and a gem. I can't believe how much information and ideas it packed into its slender frame. It is about Prince, but it is also about culture. "And when America's guard was down ... Prince eased out his Bible & said, let me also tell you about my Lord & savior, Jesus Christ." Best ending of a music book ever.
- Gulp: Adventures on the alimentary canal Mary Roach. Mary Roach is incredible. She takes a subject & gets all the juice out of it. Gulp is witty, informative and full of stories and examples that will make you gasp - from Elvis and his megacolon to the intricacies of rectal smuggling. Brilliant, funny, and as soon as I read it I knew it'd be a total shoo-in for book of the year 2013 lists.
- The Luminaries Eleanor Catton. Whew, what more is there to say about what is now a classic and a New Zealand cultural behemoth? I even did a tweetblog on reading it. A stunner.
Read my Best Reads of 2013 list
- Sarah Laing's stunning illustration for Emma Martin's Two girls in a boat. You can read about Sarah's creative process in her blogpost The making of a book cover.
- I love the weird skewing of space in the cover image of Pip Adam's I'm working on a building.
- Dirty Politics Nicky Hager. This is my book of the year - for its influence, impact, and importance. It is as precise as a scalpel in a world of murk. And as the year ends, again it is to the fore.
- The Book of Strange New Things Michel Faber. Oh gosh, this is one of those magic books that holds you in its grip and it is at once uncanny and realistic. Michel Faber is that rare author who can jump from genre to genre and make everything gold. This is quite classic sci-fi with lots of humanity.
- Scent and Subversion: Decoding a century of provocative perfume Barbara Herman. If only this was a scratch n sniff title. Cue wistful sigh. As a perfume lover, I found this book hit the mark and hopefully it will wend its way to my bookshelf sometime soon.
- Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys Viv Albertine. A rather great year for music books I reckon. And this was a standout - from the brilliant title and right through. Viv is honest and interesting; I was glued to this book.
- Tell you What: Great New Zealand Non-Fiction 2015. An omnium gatherum of great New Zealand writing, mostly from out on the Web. If you wanted to compare it to food - you could say a degustation or tasting plates - but actually the essays are more substantial than that. Each piece is a complete meal and you can dip in and read them, or devour the whole book cover to cover. I'd love to see this as a regular publication. It's that strong.
Read my Best Reads of 2014 list
- Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen Dylan Horrocks. The man is a massive New Zealand talent, and deserves all the kudos. Onya Dylan.
- Creamy Psychology Yvonne Todd. A survey of the work of photographer Yvonne Todd. Artists and photographers - like cartoonists - often have a head start when it comes to good covers. They have the images. And this is hypnotically creepy and yet alluring. Love it, and the title.
- Here Richard McGuire. This one has stayed with me all year. A wordless comic that travels thousands of years back and forward in time. It leaves you with a sense of space and nostalgia, and of being both in and out of time. A mind and heartbender.
- Naked at the Albert Hall: the Inside Story of Singing Tracey Thorn. I liked this even better than her most excellent memoir Bedsit Disco Queen. This book is about singing itself, and voice. Not something really covered much in music books. It also features talks with Romy from The xx and Alison Moyet.
- Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of CzechoslovakiaI love nonfiction tomes like this, that give you a range of interesting stories to chew on. Short and strange pieces about some byways of Czechoslovakian history. A standout is the story of Tomáš Bata and his family. I had no idea of the strange origins of the ole Bata bullets!
- The Chimes Anna Smaill. The Chimes is so exquisitely atmospheric that just to speak its name is to recall how it felt to read, and be in this odd medieval dystopian musical world. Magic.
- The Field of the Cloth of Gold Magnus Mills. If any author has a brand, it is Magnus Mills. That brand is the prosaic and the dryest of humour. Hard to explain, but do give him a whirl if you like something a bit quirky.
View my Best Reads of 2015 list
- First to the top by David Hill, illustrated by Phoebe Morris. This is a clever, cool picture book about Sir Edmund Hillary, and Phoebe's illustrations are so crisp and character-filled I kept going back and looking again. Find out more about Phoebe on the Penguin Random House website and visit Phoebe's website.
- Work by Sarah Jane Barnett. Why is it that books of poetry often have superfine covers? I don't know, but this typographic beauty is so strong and potent, I can't look away. Love that blast of yellow too.
For someone I love: A collection of writing Blank. A joyously beautiful photo makes a brilliant book cover. This is Arapera Blank and her Swiss husband, photographer Pius Blank.
- Don't Suck, Don't Die: Giving up Vic Chesnutt Kristin Hersh. How can such a small book be so big? Kristin Hersh conveys all the minutiae & griminess of life as well as its profundity & light in this musical memoir. I hadn't listened to Vic's music before, and to finish this book and listen to it is revelatory.
- Annual. A cool New Zealand book, with art, writing, and ideas from Aotearoa's finest. It even has games!
- Mansfield and Me Sarah Laing. Mansfield and me is - to put it simply - perfect. It's one of those rare stories where both parts (Sarah's life and that of Katherine Mansfield) are equally absorbing.
- Smoke Gets in your Eyes: and other lessons from the crematory Caitlin Doughty. Caitlin came to this year's WORD Christchurch. What a woman, what a book. I thought I might be a tad squeamish to read this - but it was so interesting, engaging, challenging and brilliant that I soon got over that.
- Advanced Style: Older and Wiser Ari Seth Cohen. Even better that the original - glorious pics of people with truly unique style. Will make you feel positive about getting older!
Read my Best Reads of 2016 list
Number one is Mansfield and me: A graphic memoir by Sarah Laing, published by Victoria University Press. The cover, as drawn by Sarah, is a thing of beauty. It also draws you into the compelling counterpointing of Sarah and Katherine Mansfield - the very heart of the book.
- Fave novel: Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders
- Fave music book: Meet me in the bathroom: Rebirth and rock and roll in New York City 2001-2011 Elizabeth Goodman
- Best wordsmithing: Fucking apostrophes Simon Griffin
- Re-read of the year: The Magicians' nephew C.S. Lewis
- Best cover: The Forensic Records society Magnus Mills
View my Best Reads of 2017 list.
My fave New Zealand book covers of 2017:
Gold medal winner for 2017 is our own Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. It's not a parochial choice. They've produced a standout series of publications to add to their award-winning output.
Aberhart starts here (by senior curator Dr Lara Strongman with Laurence Aberhart) is the companion book to the exhibition (on until 6 February 2018 - don't miss it). The striking cover cleverly matches Aberhart's photo with the title added to the building as if it were graffiti, or a business name (in that attractive and distinctive typeface used in the exhibition). The text and the photos have been given room to breathe on the page. It's a beautiful book with a kind of stately gravitas.
Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City Julia Wertz.As soon as I finished this book, I knew it was going on my "Best of" list. Julia Wertz draws New York buildings, then and now. And tells some local stories. This book is a stellar combo of grotty, beautiful, & compelling. Its deep dive into twisty NY history makes me want to go there more than any book I've ever read.
Fashion Climbing: A New York Life Bill Cunningham.A gem of a book, it captures time, character, and a world now gone. I loved following the trajectory of Bill's hat business 'Willliam J' and the socialites. dowagers, and ballsy career girls he meets.
To Throw Away Unopened Viv Albertine
This book is all about Viv and her Mum and Dad and her sister and her daughter. This book is very much about whānau. It is a book full of revelations, for Viv and for us. I can't think of any memoir told with this level of honesty and rawness and self awareness.
Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany Jane Mount.A book so beautiful I bought myself a copy, And the matching diary for 2019. Oh, and a ceramic vase shaped like a book.
- Coal Black Mornings Brett Anderson. Suede frontman Brett has written a beautifully moody memoir with imagery so strong I can picture the little council house he grew up in, and his fascinating family. Fun fact: Brett might easily have been called Horatio, but his mother named him after actor Jeremy Brett. His sister was called Blandine.
View my Best Reads of 2018 list
Poūkahangatus Tayi Tibble
Cover art by Xoë Hall, published by Victoria University Press.
I had my eye on this one back in April, when VUP Books tweeted their cover reveal.The bold sexy colours! The snaky Medusa lettering! This stunner of a cover is a perfect match for the badass fab poetry in Tayi's collection. I've had a look at more work by Xoë, and WOW WOW WOW. My eyes are so pleasured.
- This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else: Joy Divison: The Oral History Jon Savage. This was a scorchingly good read. I love a music oral history, and this one covers so many angles on the Joy Division story. It isn't all dark gothy bleakness thank goodness, there's psychogeography - and dry humour.
- Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia Tracey Thorn. You'd know by her songs that Tracey Thorn can write, but by heck she can write. This look back at her teenage life is a wander round her past, and it will resonate with anyone who was a suburban teen wondering where to go next and who to be.
- Heimat: A German Family album Nora Krug. I love graphic novel memoirs - this one is one of the best ever. A beautiful journey into history & family.
- Advanced Love Ari Seth Cohen. Advanced Style was a joy, and this is joy - doubled.
- Days of the Bagnold Summer Joff Winterhart. Belle and Sebastian has done the soundtrack to the film adaptation of this graphic novel. The book itself is funny, dry, bleak, and portrays the relationship between an introvert son and his solo mum in a funny, honest way. Joff Winterhart's Driving Short Distances is also a brilliant book, with a similar combo of life's prosaic banalities and Mum/Son relationships.
- Conversations with Friends Sally Rooney. I was a latecomer to Sally Rooney, whose novel Normal People has been immensely popular and critically acclaimed. She was born in 1991, I exclaimed. I read Conversations with Friends in a couple of days. Wow. A book to lose yourself in, totally immersive and addictive. (Note: . If they ever adapt it for TV or movie, I see Adam Driver as Nick.
View my Best Reads of 2019 list
The Absolute Book Elizabeth Knox. Published by Victoria University Press.
This is my favourite cover of the year. Natural, bucolic, beautiful - it has resonated with me from the moment I saw this tweet from Victoria University Press. This stunner of a cover is the artwork Lost (2014) by Australian artist Catherine Nelson
Catherine Nelson is an Australian artist, living in Belgium and the Netherlands, who uses digital technology as her paintbrush creating landscape ‘paintings’ and animations.
And that typeface is *chef's kiss*.
- Nothing to see Pip Adam. This story is a compelling combination of banal and rivetingly mysterious. Bread, op shops, AA meetings, scrimping, people that are two persons. Pip Adam sets a new benchmark for New Zealand fiction going into strange and wonderful directions.
- Perfumes: the Guide Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. I was happy to discover this update of one of my favourite books of all time. Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez make reading about perfume an utterly transporting delight.
- Recollections of my Nonexistence Rebecca Solnit. From the 60s until now - this is the kind of book that has a million quotes or sections I want to download into my brain.
- Philippe Sands. The BBC podcast was compelling listening; the book goes deeper. One of the most powerful endings to a work of nonfiction I've ever read. Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive
- A Curious History of Sex Kate Lister. It's as juicily packed with history and info as you'd imagine. Lots of social history, and even a chapter about bikes.
View my Best Reads of 2020 list
Nothing to see Pip Adam, published by Victoria University Press, cover by Russell Kleyn
I have been low key obsessed with this book cover since I first laid eyes on it. The cover photo is by Russell Kleyn, a "South African-born, multidisciplinary photographer based in Wellington, with portraits in the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington and the National Portrait Gallery in London. He's on Instagram @russell_kleyn and the photograph and casting by Russell featuring @_francafranca
Yes, the cover is art - but it's the way it connects with the contents that fires this to Number One. This is a head twistingly fabulous book and Pip Adam is a flipping genius. It's published by Victoria University Press who really respect the art of a good cover.
— Ngā Kete Wānanga-o-Ōtautahi (@ChristchurchLib) August 13, 2020
- Crying in H Mart: A Memoir Michelle Zauner. I am a fan of Japanese Breakfast's music. And now of her writing. Am still reeling after reading Crying in H Mart. It made me feel so much; I bawled myself silly. It's overwhelming. What a gift to share your truth like this. Book of the Year!
- You are beautiful and you are alone: the biography of Nico Jennifer Otter Bickerdike. Jennifer spoke to everybody about gloomy music icon Nico - the book is incredibly well-researched, but is readable and absorbing as heck.
- Things I learned at Art School Megan Dunn. My favourite type of book, this - Episodes & Incidents, Arty & Artful, Family, Truthbombs, Antics. This book made me very happy. Also, very sad. Winner of my best NZ book cover of 2021.
- Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave Mark Mordue. A meaty beaty dive into the life of young Nick Cave. It captures the sweat and magnetism and intensity of his early bands, culminating in The Birthday Party.
- Kent State: Four dead in Ohio Derf. I finished this in tears. A thoroughly researched graphic history of the 4 May 1970 shooting of unarmed college students by the National Guard. Derf conducted extensive interviews and went into the archives. 4 students killed, 9 wounded. Shocking.
View my Best Reads of 2021 list
My fave New Zealand book covers of 2021:
Well, my favourite book cover in 2021 is Things I learned at Art School by Megan Dunn. I've been obsessed with it since I first spied it on social media, well before it was published. I'm very pleased to report the contents of the book are as splendid as the cover: "My favourite type of book, this - Episodes & Incidents, Arty & Artful, Family, Truthbombs, Antics. This book made me very happy. Also, very sad." Here's some information on the cover:
- Photographer Yvonne Todd (Megan's best friend ) took the cover photo of Alice in Wonderland.
- The model dressed as Alice is Claudia Miles of Unique Models, marketing student from Hamilton. This was her first job.
- The painting behind Alice is Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent Van Gogh.