LEONARDO DA VINCI by Walter Isaacson

(Simon & Schuster $60)

"Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible," wrote the 30-year-old Leonardo da Vinci. And who are we to argue with the original Renaissance man: painter, sculptor, experimenter, anatomist, inventor, etc etc? This well-illustrated, hefty — in the best way — biography does a fine job not just of describing Leonardo's many accomplishments, but also teasing out the common thread between them (in short: relentless curiosity about absolutely everything). Isaacson isn't shy about his subject's weaknesses, including his record-breaking procrastination (16 years, and he still wasn't quite done with the Mona Lisa), but he's obviously in awe of his genius. MF

DANCING WITH THE KING: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE KING COUNTRY, 1864-1885 by Michael Belgrave

(AUP, $85)

It's hard to imagine today but for 21 years much of the central North Island was an independent realm ruled by the Maori King, where the Government's writ did not run and Pakeha travelled at their peril. Michael Belgrave, formerly research manager for the Waitangi Tribunal and now history professor at Massey University, has painstakingly pieced together information from official reports, meeting notes, private letters, memoirs, Land Court archives and newspaper accounts, to create a remarkable picture of the negotiations that led to the King Country rejoining New Zealand. JE

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GORBACHEV: HIS LIFE AND TIMES by William Taubman

(Simon & Schuster, $50)

Almost forgotten today, Mikhail Gorbachev was the unlikely leader of the Soviet bloc who killed off communism, ended the Cold War and changed history. Taubman tells the fascinating story of how this poor peasant boy worked his way to the top of a system he knew was not working, then used his power to start much-needed reforms, especially after the Chernobyl disaster underlined just how rotten things were. Alas for Gorbachev, he lost control of the reform process, the Soviet Union collapsed, taking his job with it, and the scene was set for the rise of Vladimir Putin. JE

DRIVING TO TREBLINKA: A LONG SEARCH FOR A LOST FATHER by Diana Wichtel

(Awa Press, $45)

It's probably not the best admission, but I'm not a particularly fast reader. However, this I read in a single weekend. Award-winning Listener columnist Diana Wichtel was born in Vancouver in 1950; her mother was a New Zealander and her father a Polish Jew who jumped off a train to the Treblinka death camp in World War II and hid from the Nazis until the end of the war. When Diana was 13, she moved back to NZ with her mother, sister and brother. Her father was supposed to follow; she never saw him again. Many years later, she set out to find out what had happened to him. It's one of the most eloquent and heartbreaking memoirs I've read and, three months later, I still catch myself thinking about what it says about history and humanity, family and memory. DC

EVERYBODY LIES by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

(Bloomsbury $30)

Every time you search Google, you reveal a little of yourself. Combine millions of those searches and they reveal a lot about a lot of us. It's not a pretty picture: our internet searches suggest we're often sadder than we appear; more racist than we'd admit; getting less sex than we claim; obsessed with our genitalia and have odd tastes in pornography (be warned, the porn section is fairly explicit). But if the findings can be depressing, the power of this information is fascinating. A worthy successor to Freakonomics, this introduction to "big data" is thought-provoking and very entertaining. MF

THE EPIC CITY: THE WORLD ON THE STREETS OF CALCUTTA by Kushanava Choudhury

(Bloomsbury $37)

"Everything that could possibly be wrong with a city was wrong with Calcutta," writes Choudhury — too hot, too crowded, too wet, and too chaotic. And yet, the city of his childhood kept pulling him back from a comfortable life in the US. His love for the place is revealed in everyday details — its neighbourhoods, history, street life, politics, food and conversations. You wouldn't call this travel writing — and it's not likely to prompt you to buy a ticket — so much as a love letter to a place, and to life, in all its messy imperfection. MF

BREAKING RANKS by James McNeish

(HarperCollins, $35)

McNeish's last book, which is sad; a study of "interrupted lives", which is typical. The rise to eminence and subsequent decline of three NZ outsiders is engrossing and often affecting. "Mad Mike" Reginald Mills, a decorated soldier in both World Wars, escaped from German captivity, then killed himself. Judge Peter Mahon led the Erebus inquiry, which exposed, in his (in)famous phrase, "an orchestrated litany of lies". The political establishment turned on him and he died aged just 62. Dr John Saxby pioneered group therapy in NZ, also battled the establishment, also took his own life. Meticulous research and writing; a cogent sense of human vitality and vulnerability. We miss you, Sir Jim. DH