2016's best books

The best books of 2016 as recommended by our regular ODT reviewers.

FICTION

BARKSKINS
Annie Proulx
HarperCollins

Annie Proulx's chronicle (not exactly a novel), Barkskins, traces the interwoven fates of two families from Maine, one First Nation American Mi'kmaw, the other French/Dutch Canadian-American, covering more than three centuries in 720 pages. It is a waiata tangi for the loss of the rich natural world of northeast America and for the way of life of the Mi'kmaw due to the racist and greedy predation of Western colonisation, immigration and globalising commerce. - Recommended by Peter Stupples

Annie Proulx, author of Barskins, has been chosen by the ODT books editor and a reviewer as their book of the year. Photo: Gus Powell
Annie Proulx, author of Barkskins, has been chosen by the ODT books editor and a reviewer as their book of the year. Photo: Gus Powell

THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE
Fiona Sussman
Allen & Unwin

This is a no-holds-barred, compelling story of the aftermath of a home invasion. It deals with the effects on the victims of rape, murder and life-changing injuries, and encompasses issues of identity, upbringing and the justice system. - Recommended by Rachel Gurney

STRIP
Sue Wootton
Makaro Press

This is the most interesting new New Zealand novel I have read this year. It focuses on several fully drawn characters facing a series of significant medical and ethical dilemmas and is written with engaging style and technical control. - Recommended by Lawrence Jones

DAYS WITHOUT END
Sebastian Barry
Allen & Unwin

A magnificent story, told with passion and stunning language of a young man from Ireland and his lover in America in the 1850s, time of the Indian wars and the US Civil War. Not to be missed. - Recommended by Margaret Bannister

VINEGAR GIRL
Anne Tyler
Hogarth/Penguin Random House

One of Hogarth's 21st-century remixes of Shakespeare's plays, here Anne Tyler updates The Taming of the Shrew. The entertainingly tactless Kate is bemused to be courted by Piotr, her father's Russian lab assistant who is no great shakes at social graces either but does need a Green Card . . . A quick, breezy and clever read. - Recommended by Feby Idrus

GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT
Lily Brooks-Dalton
Hachette

This quiet eulogy to love and loss is the perfect antidote to the chaos that has overtaken the world this year. Suffused with a melancholic, autumnal sadness in which the awareness of beauty mingles with the grief at its transience, it is a timely reminder to value the truly important things in this life before they are gone forever. - Recommended by Cushla McKinney

THE COMET SEEKERS
Helen Sedgwick
Harvill Secker/Penguin Random House

This is about families obsessed with generational attention to the stars and the sky and the impact of what is there on their lives. Delicate evocative narrative, easy to read, with much to ponder. - Recommended by Willie Campbell

WHAT BELONGS TO YOU
Garth Greenwell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Picador

A stunning novel of a young man's struggle with alienation, hopelessness and desire in modern Bulgaria. The American narrator is working as a teacher but is drawn into a dark world of sensuality and violence. The author is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and his first novel is poetic and deeply affecting. - Recommended by Jessie Neilson

DARKTOWN
Thomas Mullen
Little, Brown/Hachette

Atlanta 1948, Darktown. This is a sometimes uneasy portrayal of racism and a US where billboards proclaim "Keep America Safe from Foreigners''. It represents pre-civil-rights US and explores the bleak issues of race, law and justice. It is a compelling read because of its parallels with injustices and politics evident today. - Recommended by Ted Fox

 

POETRY

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF ALISTAIR TE ARIKI CAMPBELL
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
Victoria University Press

Alistair Campbell was born in the Cook Islands and educated at Otago Boys' and the universities of Otago and Victoria. His poetry is found in more than 20 collections during his 60-year writing career. This handsome hardback brings it all together. Six sections contain early lyrics, love poems, his moving war poems and autobiographical poems in letter form. - Recommended by Hamesh Wyatt

LET THEM EAT CHAOS
Kate Tempest
Picador/Macmillan

This long poem speaks of the lives of the young in an exhausted society. It confirms Tempest's place as a literary innovator and a kind of primeval shaman giving voice to the swirling psychic undercurrents of a damaged generation. Bitter and wounded, but refusing to subside in cynicism, Let Them Eat Chaos contains an old message reminding us of our common humanity and shared fate. - Recommended by Victor Billot

 

CHILDREN'S

TINY OWL ON THE RAMSHACKLE FARM
Lotte Wotherspoon
Clay Press

"All is still on the ramshackle farm, Just the babble of the brook in the midnight calm.'' But Tiny Owl hears noises and imagines all sorts of monsters, until her Papa wakes and they go on an adventure. The simple rhyming text is delightful and the hand-drawn illustrations of patchwork fields, flora and assorted monsters are exquisite. - Recommended by Helen Speirs

 

NON-FICTION

ABSOLUTELY ON MUSIC:
CONVERSATIONS WITH SEIJI OZAWA
Haruki Murakami
Penguin Random House

This is an enchanting, lengthy conversation about music and creativity between the two Japanese-born, talented artists: Ozawa, musical maestro, and Murakami, internationally famous novelist. This is a remarkably fine testament to the power of good performances and appreciation of music, and an easy read. - Recommended by Geoff Adams

THE BIG SMOKE: NEW ZEALAND CITIES 1840-1920
Ben Schrader
Bridget Williams Books

Ben Schrader gives Dunedin its due place in this handsomely illustrated history of urban New Zealand. The city's prominence in the 1860s and 1890s is well covered and the social history intriguing. Happily, the 1920 cut-off saves Dunedinites from having to read of the city's subsequent relative decline. - Recommended by Jim Sullivan

WHY VOTE LEAVE
Daniel Hannan
Head of Zeus/Penguin Random House

Hannan presents argument after argument for Brexit being the best option, and shows it will be far more beneficial for Britain in the long run. Britain's joining the EU was based on lies; worse, the lies have only increased over the years, especially from the EU side. - Recommended by Mike Crowl

SEELENBINDER: THE OLYMPIAN WHO DEFIED HITLER
James McNeish
Steele Roberts

The redoubtable New Zealand writer, the late Sir James McNeish, expended much investigative effort in writing about Werner Seelenbinder. An accomplished German wrestler, Seelenbinder spent five and a-half years as a Resistance fighter against the Nazi regime. He was beheaded on October 24, 1944. A fine book about a fine man. - Recommended by Clarke Isaacs

WORKING CLASS BOY
Jimmy Barnes
Harper Collins

A raw, harrowing memoir from the Australian rocker. This is an intensely powerful and often heart-breaking glimpse into a fractured childhood. The best autobiographies are fresh and honest, and this ticks both boxes. - Recommended by Hayden Meikle

MIKE SINCLAIR: KING KENNY'S SPANNER-MAN
Kerry Swanson
Bateman

For more than 30 years this self-taught engineering genius from Christchurch was at the forefront of world championship motorcycle racing. Mike Sinclair worked with some of the sport's legends, providing them with championship-winning bikes, baffling engineers and designers from Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki with his ability to out-think them. It's a book that celebrates the can-do Kiwi attitude. - Recommended by Peter Donaldson

A BUNK FOR THE NIGHT:
A GUIDE TO NEW ZEALAND'S BEST BACKCOUNTRY HUTS
Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown & Geoff Spearpoint
Potton & Burton

Anyone who has spent time in a backcountry hut - whether a tiny bivvy or a Great Walk palace - will love this book. With great photos and writing, it will be the book to daydream with as you plan many more nights in these quintessentially Kiwi shelters. - Recommended by David Barnes

NEW ZEALAND'S WESTERN FRONT CAMPAIGN
Ian McGibbon
Bateman

The New Zealand Division fought at Passchendaele in 1917 on this country's bloodiest day, and our psyche and future were shaped by our experience in World War 1. This massive and detailed account is stunning; it covers not only the campaigns and battles but the experience of hundreds of individuals. - Recommended by Oliver Riddell

THE ROMANOVS
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Hachette

A superb book that once started, will demand a large portion of your life. The author has a fascination with Russian history which transfers readily to his readers. Amazing revelations on how people in power can twist a firm belief in their "divine right to rule'' to justify excesses of every kind. Thankfully, Montefiore's use of humour and irony, lightens the darkness. - Recommended by Patricia Thwaites

A BRIEF HISTORY OF EVERYONE WHO EVER LIVED:
THE STORIES IN OUR GENES
Adam Rutherford
Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Hachette

When the DNA molecule was first understood in 1953, some seriously questioned what could be done with it. Nowadays we wonder what can not be done with it. If, like most of us, you are consumed with the problem of whether you are related to the emperor Charlemagne, read on! - Recommended by Clive Trotman

TRIBE: ON HOMECOMING AND BELONGING
Sebastian Junger
Hachette

This book by award-winning journalist Sebastian Junger is an original, well-researched, engagingly written exploration of the ills we face in Western countries as a result of the breakdown of social networks. Junger's case for the importance of having a small group of like-minded friends, for individual and societal wellbeing, is compelling, with many practical implications. - Recommended by Bruce Munro

THE RADIUM GIRLS: THEY PAID WITH THEIR LIVES.
THEIR FINAL FIGHT WAS FOR JUSTICE
Kate Moore
Simon & Schuster

Moore deftly captures the harrowing, ultimately uplifting, story of the 1920s American women workers poisoned by radium as they painted luminous dials on watches and clocks. You will be flabbergasted at the classy gutsiness of these sick women who fight for justice with the help of a flamboyant lawyer. - Recommended by Elspeth McLean

PROGRESS
Johan Norberg
Oneworld/Allen & Unwin

Progress is everywhere. With a statistical onslaught, Norberg points out how more human beings are enjoying a better quality of life than ever before. Fewer children die of preventable diseases. More boys and girls go to school for longer. Being gay is no longer a crime in a growing number of countries. War and famine are becoming rare. In a year of pessimistic political sentiment, Norberg's book should be required reading. - Recommended by Joshua Riddiford

CHARLES WILLIAMS: THE THIRD INKLING
Grevel Lindop
Oxford University Press

Williams died at the end of WW2, and fell into obscurity/cult status. He deserves this major biography, not for being the ``Inkling'' in the shadow of Lewis and Tolkien, but for being a complex, fascinating man, author of seven fine ``spiritual thrillers'', complex poetry, and much else, and as a deeply original (if not eccentric) theological thinker, who explored the outer limits of orthodox Christian supernaturalism. - Recommended by Paul Tankard

MUCH ADO ABOUT SHAKESPEARE
Donovan Bixley
Upstart Press

Donovan Bixley's Much Ado about Shakespeare, which recently won best illustrated book at the NZ Book Awards for Children, is clever in all sorts of ways. With short chapters on The Bard's upbringing, career and the world he lived in, there are also fitting quotes and, of course, those wonderful, humorous illustrations. Suitable for all ages. - Recommended by Laura Hewson

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