With Christmas nearly upon us, the Canvas book reviewing team takes the hassle out of gift-shopping with ideas for all ages and tastes.

BOOK OF THE YEAR

Inspirational Gardens of New Zealand

by Kristin Lammerting; photography by Ferdinand Graf von Luckner

(Penguin/Viking $82)

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This would make an appealing gift for anyone who loves gardens or needs inspiration for their own patch. The author, who is based in Germany but visits New Zealand frequently, owns Palmco palm nursery and garden in Kerikeri, featured here - and deservedly so, with its lush landscape of cycads, tree ferns, palms and dragon trees.

The design becomes more formal with the Woodbridge garden in Coatesville, where the Peeks have turned 8ha of rolling land into a romantic profusion of topiary, lawns, frothy borders, grasses, herbs and a swamp garden. You can walk through the small wooden gate leading out of the vegetable garden, Lammerting writes, and be "astonished to find a magnificent vista of air and light".

The book leads you to a more restrained garden on Waiheke (landscape architect Ted Smythe), the famous Ayrlies in Whitford, and the Taranaki Rhododendron and Garden Festival and Te Kainga Marire, also in New Plymouth. As we proceed south, the layouts again become more deliberate, as in Richmond Garden in Carteron, a vision of straight lines and elegant pools complemented by masses of clipped box and wacky areas with topiary "teddy bears" and "chickens". But so much clipping ...

We enter the South Island via Motueka's Tasman Bay Roses, and Old Saint Mary's Convent (now a five-star lodge) in Blenheim, where lavender rules and a chapel has been shifted into the garden for the weddings that take place in this most dreamy setting. In Seddon we meet a former sheep farmer named Jimma, who has created a house which nestles into the side of a cliff, its roof covered in grasses, surrounded by a natural coastal garden. No clipping for them.

The Stevenson family on the Canterbury Plains near Kaiapoi have created a marriage of a traditional English-style farm house with an extremely formal garden through which sheep wander (I bet they are kept well away from those precise box hedges. More clipping).

The book eventually winds up at Larnach Castle, on the Otago Peninsula, which the Barker family saved from ruin when they bought the property in 1967 and started the renovation of the building as well creating its gardens, including restoring its "Lost Rock Garden".

Lammerting provides a list of addresses, visiting hours, contact numbers and websites, with a map which should encourage anyone with a copy of

Inspirational Gardens

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to hit the road and see for themselves: all the pleasure, without the clipping.

- Linda Herrick

HOME AND GARDEN

Kevin McCloud's 43 Principles Of Home

(HarperCollins $69.99)

An ideas-laden tome (large-format, nearly 400 pages) in which the terrific Kevin McCloud, of

Grand Designs

fame, presents a manifesto that exhorts us not to buy so much stuff, a lifestyle that "could be slower, more enjoyable, gentler and less taxing on the resources of this planet". It is divided into four parts: Energy, Buildings, Things and Sharing, each broken down into chapters such as Setting Fire to Things, How to Recycle Energy, Looking After the Elderly, How To Not Shop, Things at Home Not Worth Investing In and Sharing Out the Garbage. It is well-illustrated and clearly laid out, with a load of complex information. The chapter called Things Not to Put Into Your House is an eye-opener.

At Home: A Short History Of Private Life by Bill Bryson

(Doubleday $65)

When Bryson and his family moved into an old rectory in Norfolk, he went up into the attic to look for the source of a leak, and discovered a secret door which led to a tiny rooftop space and a wonderful view. The day before, an archeologist friend had told him his home, set in a graveyard, was estimated to contain the remains of 20,000 people. That set him thinking about 2000 years of "masses of people doing ordinary things". He decided to start looking at the "ordinary" domestic things in his rectory, to "wander from room to room ... and write a history of the world without leaving home". A clever idea and in Bryson's capable, engaging hands, we learn about the history of glass, dining, doors, houskeeping, fires, electricity, gardens, bedrooms, makeup, mousetraps: you name it.

Home Work by John Walsh & Patrick Reynolds

(Godwit $75)

Handsome collection in which 23 leading NZ architects talk to John Walsh about their own houses, accompanied by Patrick Reynolds' superb photos. Walsh writes that architects reveal a great deal about their personalities in the design of their own homes, displaying a "frankness" unleashed by being their own clients. He opens with Ian Athfield's extraordinary complex of rooms spilling down the hillside next to Wellington harbour. Auckland architects include David Mitchell and Julie Stout, whose angular structure at Narrow Neck has polarised neighbours; Patrick Clifford (the master bedroom in his Remuera home has a lovely view right into a tree); and Marshall Cook (covet the library-lounge in his Freemans Bay townhouse).

A History Of Gardening In New Zealand by Bee Dawson

(Godwit $49.99)

A nicely illustrated history that mirrors the development of our society. Dawson's study starts with the arrival of the first Polynesians, probably during the 13th century, with their seeds, fruits and plants and the gardening techniques used by early Maori. When Captain Cook gave potatoes to a chief in 1769, that was the first recorded introduction of a food crop by Europeans. Much more followed with European immigration, including flowering plants. Bees were brought in; horticultural societies sprang up; gardens established; huge cabbages grown. The 20th century ushered in garden sheds, chicken runs, botanic gardens, state houses (tenants were issued with fruit trees in the 30s) and "digging for victory".

- Linda Herrick

COFFEE TABLE

Brian Brake: Lens On The World ed by Athol McCredie

(Te Papa Press $99.99)

The striking cover shot, of a camel rider of the Aden Protectorate Levies beside a jet plane on the RAF airfield in Aden, Yemen, in 1956 is but a hint of the treasures within. McCredie, curator of photography at Te Papa, has gathered together more than 300 images by Brake, one of our greatest international photographers, whose work spans the decades (1940s-late 80s) and many countries. His work tells the story of the world in the last part of the 20th century, with Brake's famous images of Picasso and Cocteau at a French bullfight juxtaposed with the challenge of documenting China in the mid-50s. Brake's images of post-war East End of London, and Nigeria, Moscow, Yemen, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and beyond are simply enthralling.

Classic: The Revival Of Classic Boating In New Zealand by Ivor Wilkins

(Random House $95)

Old-time yachts have become as common as dolphins on Auckland Harbour in recent years, a revival inspired by our America's Cup success. Wilkins could have paid adequate homage with the magnificent shots he has assembled of these graceful craft in action - all sleek lines and varnished timbers beneath gigantic sails. He achieves much more, recounting the adventures of famous and lesser known yachts and of the devotees who salvaged them, sometimes from beyond the point of ruin.

Decade: Transition and Turmoil ed by Eamonn McCabe

(Phaidon $65)

Five hundred pages of photos, with introductory essays on climate change and human inertia, 9/11, the globalisation of sport, science in the public eye and how the arts market survived. It's been a hell of a decade - the pictures remind you that hopes were high as 2000 dawned but the cracks in Africa and the Middle East quickly become apparent. December 13, 2000: Bush Wins, says the newspaper headline and the 2001 chapter is called "Terror". The Taleban destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan; Bush's reading of

The Pet Goat

is interrupted by the news of the 9/11 attacks; Enron files for bankruptcy. This portrait of a decade is engaging if a tad depressing but it ends with an April 2010 picture of a huge party in Mexico City.

The Dress Circle by Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, Claire Regnault

(Godwit $75)

The history of New Zealand fashion and style over the past 70 years. The writers selected 1940 as a starting point because "it parallels the introduction of 20th century modernism into NZ design". Memories of your mother, aunt or granny will well up when you start with the 1940s when "fashion was something imported from overseas". The 50s marked the rise of NZ designs and some truly covetable dresses, while during the 60s, the industry was flourishing. By the time we get to the 70s, "fashion is in a mess", women wanted to wear trousers, and we have bizarre, fussy designs. We all know the 80s was the decade of excess, with clothes to match, countered by punk and - eek - New Romanticism. The 90s meant Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester, World, and in 2001 the launch of NZ Fashion Week. A fascinating book although the 70s and 80s photos will have some people cringing. Hopefully.

- Linda Herrick

RELIGION AND FAITH

God Is Back: How The Global Rise Of Faith Is Changing The World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge

(Penguin $31)

It wasn't supposed to be like this. By now gods and religion were supposed to have quietly faded away (as they have in much of Europe), leaving us in a secular, rationalist, atheist world. Instead, in America, Asia and Africa religion is booming. Even the prospect of religious wars, thought to have been largely ended by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, once more looms on the horizon. For this state of affairs this book credits the free market dynamism of the United States. Competition in religion, they argue, has resulted in the development of churches designed to meet the specific needs of religious consumers - social and economic as well as spiritual - and they have succeeded brilliantly. On the other side of that coin, the free market's spread of American culture around the globe has disrupted traditional societies and sent troubled people flocking to the certainties of Islam. Is this good or bad? As far as these authors - one a Catholic, the other an atheist - are concerned it's simply a matter of individuals exercising their free will. Religion, in their view, only creates problems when it becomes intertwined with the power of the state.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

(Bantam Press $29.99)

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

(Allen and Unwin $32.99)

If further proof were needed that God is back it surely comes in the outpouring of books like these which make a passionate case against belief in any God and the existence of any organised religion. As you'd expect from two such superb communicators, both are a good read, but they seem more designed to irritate believers and entertain non-believers than to actually prosecute the case against God.

Wrestling With God by Lloyd Geering

(Bridget Williams Books $39.99)

A Religious Atheist: Critical Essays On The Work of Lloyd Geering

(Otago University Press $39.95)

Lloyd Geering, who was famously tried for heresy in 1967, is New Zealand's best-known religious thinker. His biography reveals a thoughtful, insightful, deeply spiritual man who seems never to have really believed in the traditional Christian God. The book of essays on his work, while inevitably rather academic, offers a useful perspective on his writing and concludes that he has "effectively abandoned the search for God" which usually lies at the heart of religious thinking.

The Case For God by Karen Armstrong

(The Bodley Head $39.99)

One of the world's leading religious writers argues that traditional religion got into difficulties when it foolishly tried to provide answers to all the questions which lie beyond the reach of human reason. For most of human history, she argues, "religion's task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us live creatively, peacefully and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life." Only when religion returns to that original role will it again meet a fundamental human need.

Jesus For The Non Religious by John Shelby Spong

(Harper Collins $39.99)

The former Episcopal Bishop in the United States, who charmed quite a few non-believers when he visited New Zealand a couple of years ago, seeks to rescue the Jesus in whom he fervently believes from the obscuring religious myths which he profoundly rejects. This real Jesus, he proclaims, is the figure humanity needs today to lead it back to "the God experience" on which Christianity was originally built.

- Jim Eagles

BIOGRAPHIES

Life by Keith Richards

(Weidenfeld & Nicolson $59.99)

When I first heard about this I was bemused: how could he remember anything? But once you start reading Richards' brutally direct account of his life, you'll be hooked. The writing is crisp and articulate (with assistance from journalist-friend James Fox), the anecdotes are funny, hair-raising and occasionally ugly, and the passages about where the music "comes from" are magic. Mick Jagger must be hating it: Richards turns his full glare on the prancer. The occasional insertion of viewpoints written by other people, like Marlon, Richards' son, add another dimension, and Richards kindly includes his recipe for bangers and mash.

Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg

(Century $39.99)

Shaun of the Dead

and

Hot Fuzz

fans will enjoy this "small boy's journey to becoming a big kid". Pegg says he finds writing about his personal life squirm-making - he'd sooner talk about his miniature schnauzer Minnie than his wife and daughter.But when he gets on to the subjects of zombies, sci-fi, his great mate and colleague Nick Frost, vampires and schlock, he's pretty irresistible - especially if you're a nerd.

The Elephant To Hollywood by Michael Caine

(Hodder & Stoughton $39.99)

Caine's memoir is delivered in such a chatty style it'll make you "roof tile". As a lad he was an unlikely candidate for the movies, with "funny eyes, sticking-out ears and rickets" but he had serious talent and charisma. The cockney from Elephant and Castle in south London was nervous about working with Laurence Olivier on

Sleuth

- what to call the great man? "My Lord?". But you have to love a bloke who can now say entirely without pretension: "The south of France is one of my favourite places in the world. I first went there when Peter Ustinov lent my friend Terence Stamp his yacht..."

The Life And Times Of A Brown Paper Bag by Kevin Milne

(Random House $39.99)

With his 27-year

Fair Go

career behind him, Milne has the freedom to tell all. But he's generally just so ... nice. Milne was a twin: his brother was stillborn, and the chapters on his Christchurch family are especially moving. It's a winding road through journalism school, the BBC, a bit of a gambling problem in London, newsreading back in New Zealand, marriage and a job on a series "surely destined for the chop":

Fair Go

.

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

(Allen & Unwin $39.99)

Released shortly before Hitchens discovered he had cancer, it's prescient that he says in his prologue that "I personally want to 'do' death in the active and not the passive." The book is an argument for the active, if a little too self- satisfied in parts. In his made-up version of

Vanity Fair

's Proust Questionnaire, Hitchens answers the question: "Where would you like to live?" with "In a state of conflict or a conflicted state."

A Perfect Gentleman: The Sir Wilson Whineray Story by Bob Howitt

(HarperSports $49.99)

The biography of one of our greatest rugby players - and an astute businessman - who, Howitt says, was "a most reluctant book subject". After dozens of interviews, he also discovered "no one has an unkind, let alone critical, word to say about Wilson". Colin Meads came up with the phrase that inspired the title, and the thoroughly researched material and extensive selection of pictures create a solid, dependable portrait, much like the man himself.

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh And The Secrets Of Brideshead by Paula Byrne

(Harper Press $28.99)

An engrossing account of Waugh and his relationship with the doomed country house family which inspired

Brideshead Revisited

: the Lygons of Madresfield. Waugh became friends with the Lygons through its son Hugh. Hugh's father William, Lord Beauchamp, a man drawn to embroidery and buggery, was mercilessly hounded in 1931 by his brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster, who wanted him to do the honourable thing and commit suicide. Instead, Hugh fled into exile and his children remained loyal. Waugh was devoted to the Lygon sisters, whose lives became very messy.

Loving All Of It ed by Gordon McLauchlan

(Random House $45)

Wilson Whineray is one of the 32 New Zealanders over the age of 65 looking back - and forward - at their lives in a collection edited by the extremely active Auckland writer, Gordon McLauchlan. McLauchlan has a healthy scorn for people he describes as "sybarites with their relentless craving for money, which is not currency to them but a decoration". Brian Edwards finds it extraordinary that he is now regarded as an old man, and Pat Harrison marvels over a dog called Hannah, 102 in human years, "slow-moving now and very, very patient, she appreciates simple comforts".

- Linda Herrick

FOOD BOOKS

How I Cook by Skye Gyngell

(Quadrille $65)

Gyngell, an Australian chef now in charge of the Petersham Nurseries Cafe in Surrey, has previously written two award-winning food books,

A Year In My Kitchen

and

My Favourite Ingredients

, each one memorable for their imaginative approach and inspiring photography. This looks just as enticing. She starts with recipes for a leisurely weekend breakfast (what could be nicer?), and moves on to various menus for Sunday lunch (one combination is easy roast chicken, ratatouille, new potatoes followed by lemon self-saucing pudding: mmm). Alfresco eating; afternoon tea; weekday dinner; late night suppers and special occasions - so many attractive ideas, with a recipe for a delicious Christmas pud at the very end.

Kitchen: Recipes From The Heart Of The Home by Nigella Lawson

(Chatto & Windus $75)

Nigella's eighth book of recipes, tips and anecdotes, this time amounting to what she calls "a comfort chronicle ... for me the kitchen is not a place I want to escape from, but to escape to". Part one deals with recipes to cook for people in a hurry, especially kids. Another section highlights cooking with leftovers to support her ethos "although I am extravagant, I am never wasteful"; another suggests inspiration from the contents of your pantry or freezer. Elsewhere she explains why she has banished the dinner party from her life, and she also hails weekend baking and the humble chook (free-range and organic, of course). The rather meandering ordering of the recipes would require references to the index but that shouldn't be too problematic. Nigella's recipes always work.

Comfort: Food for Sharing

(Random House $45)

A collection of recipes by New Zealand's top food writers and cooks - the likes of Al Brown, Ray McVinnie, Jo Seagar, Vic Williams, edited by Lauraine Jacobs. The recipes are laid out in precise sections: baking, soups, beef, chicken, etc, with attractive photos, and all royalties go to Starship. Good food for a good cause.

What To Cook And How To Cook It by Jane Hornby

(Phaidon $99)

Former BBC

Good Food

magazine writer Jane Hornby reckons a recipe is "a bit like a story, with a beginning, middle and, I hope, a happy ending". Her approach is about as idiot-proof as you could get: numbered step-by-step recipes accompanied by photos of the ingredients assembled before you start out, and pictures of the cooking stages. A full English breakfast? All there, bar the grease. Bangers and mash? Keith Richards would approve. There's even a recipe for shepherd's pie, another Richards staple. A basic guide which would be especially useful as a gift to a young person about to go flatting.

Bill's Basics by Bill Granger

(HarperCollins $59.99)

Another favourite Aussie chef, whose

Feed Me Now

has been used constantly over the past couple of years. He describes this as "a one-stop manual of my personal favourites ... my own repertoire of simple classics", whether it be for breakfast, soup, salads, pasta, chicken, meat, seafood, veg and desserts. I already have my heart set on Bill's prawn toasts and his wobbly creme caramel. Easy!

The Vegetarian Option by Simon Hopkinson

(Quadrille $66.99)

Hopkinson's first book,

Roast Chicken And Other Stories

, was recently voted "most useful cookery book of all time" in a survey of British food writers and chefs. Hopkinson is not a vegetarian but he says the reasoning behind this book is that "dishes cooked without carnivorous and piscatorial leanings can be every bit as exciting as those with". Let's just say this is the most interesting collection of vegetarian recipes I've ever come across, ordered in chapters according to the main ingredient - tomatoes and olive oil; pumpkin and squash; garlic and shallots; macaroni and cannelloni, and so on. So we have beetroot jelly with dill and horseradish cream. Garlic, saffron and tomato quiche. Ajo verde (chilled pistachio, green grape and cucumber soup). And jalapeno bloody Mary.

- Linda Herrick

FICTION

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

(Jonathan Cape $39.99)

The novel that's been labelled Amis' return to form, although he's disputed this, on the grounds that he and "form" are a happy couple and have never lived apart. Whatever you think of Amis' pronouncements on the sexual revolution, there's plenty here to enjoy in the company of dreamy Keith, posh Scheherazade, prosaic Lily, diminutive Adriano, and a scheming piece of arse called Gloria Beautyman. Amis is the master of the verbal joke and parts of the novel are exquisitely funny. The prose is terrific enough to make you forgive a characteristically peculiar ending.

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman

(Jonathan Cape $42.99)

In this powerful, subtle and moving novel, an Israeli woman, the mother of a son serving in the Israeli Army, leaves her home in Jerusalem to walk across the country in order to escape from the "notifiers", who could arrive any moment to inform her of her son's death. In a state of what she calls "flipped out" magical thinking, she believes that if she's not there to receive the news, it's impossible for her son to have died. This book confronts Israel's narrative of itself, what Grossman calls his country's "public, general, nationalised idiom".

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

(Bloomsbury $39.99)

Howard Jacobson won this year's Man Booker prize with this comic novel about Julian Treslove, a non-Jewish man who conducts his own inquiry into what it means to be Jewish. His best friend, Sam Finkler, is a Jew. Treslove labels Jews "Finklers", and so the focus of the book becomes "the Jewish question." In the course of exploring a culture from all perspectives, Jacobson angles his way towards universal truths. The Booker has gone to a worthy recipient.

Gifted by Patrick Evans

(VUP $30)

Patrick Evans' novel flirts with historical truth and fiction, and never commits to either. Frank Sargeson has agreed to house young Janet Frame in the army hut behind his Takapuna house. Frank is mourning the departure of his friend Harry Doyle, and dealing with writer's block. Janet types and behaves strangely; Frank tends his vegetable garden. Much is historically accurate, but some of it is not. And then there are the fictional characters. Some resemble real people, but have fictional names. A story full of layers, a literary puzzle.

In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

(Atlantic Books $35)

A strange, highly original novel set in Lesotho, Central Africa and India, in which travellers are thrown together in odd situations and the narrator, a sharp-eyed commentator, observes people in extremis, in exotic locations, in situations where the unusual is required of them. There's a sense of the malleability of human nature, and a satisfying take on unchangeable human truths, some bleak, some savage. A wry, humane book about travel, strangers, fleeting encounters, the stories that a journey creates.

Their Faces Were Shining by Tim Wilson

(VUP $30)

Tim Wilson has said he believes in God, which seems to me a problem intellectually and artistically. But if you're willing to accept the premise of the Rapture (oh, for God's sake, all right then) this novel is well worth reading. Wilson was a fiction writer well before he became famous as a TV reporter, and he's very good on the page. The prose is clear and vivid and you're drawn into the action, as God calls his flock to Heaven one Monday, and some who'd thought they'd be entitled are left behind.

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

(Sceptre $39.99)

David Mitchell has established himself as a literary trickster, fearless experimenter and virtuoso manipulator of narrative. His novels are full of intersecting plots and structural complications. His latest is set in Japan, where he lives. The time is the turn of the 18th century. The Dutch East India Company has requisitioned an island in the bay of Nagasaki as a trading post, and Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch book-keeper, falls in love with a Japanese woman. Love, culture clash, and verbal pyrotechnics.

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett

(Tuskar Rock Press $36.99)

This ambitious first novel by Adam Haslett, whose 2002 story collection was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, launches fearlessly into an exploration of contemporary America. At the centre of the action is a clash between an unscrupulous banking executive and his neighbour, an elderly woman who has an entirely different view of the social order. War is being planned in Washington and the financial sector is about to collapse - American society inspected with a mordant eye.

Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada

(Penguin Classics reissue $30)

Alone in Berlin

, now reissued as a Penguin Classic, was called by Primo Levi "the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis". Hans Fallada lived in Germany throughout the war, and based this fascinating novel on his experiences. When Otto and Anna Quangel's soldier son is killed, they begin to leave signs denouncing the Nazi regime in buildings around Berlin. The story of their courage is as relevant today as when first published.

Heartbreak by Craig Raine

(Atlantic Books $36.99)

Craig Raine is a renowned poet, and

Heartbreak

, his first novel, was so roundly criticised that he said he would publish a suicide video with his next. Reviewers were bemused: the book didn't have a coherent structure, and Raine seemed to be obsessed with, not to put too fine a point upon it, arseholes. It was a curious business, and critics had a lot of fun kicking the book around. And yet Raine is a brilliant poet, and his preoccupations, although strange and sometimes vile, are conveyed in striking and delicate prose.

- Charlotte Grimshaw

THRILLERS

This Body Of Death by Elizabeth George

(Hodder & Stoughton $38.99)

A monster DI Lynley book to see you through the holidays, and keep you guessing all the way - but without trickery. This is great, solid crime writing which manages to pose questions, without moralising or pomposity, on the best way to treat very young male criminals. This is the story of what happened to one such boy in the years after the terrible death of a toddler - killed by the actions of three boys whose big day out went badly wrong. George's skill is to bring her strands and characters together without making you feel you've been manipulated.

Florence And Giles by John Harding

(Blue Door $29.99)

Not strictly speaking a thriller, but one of the more thrilling, and innovative, books of the year. Orphans Giles and Florence live in a big, old spooky house. There is an unseen uncle and a governess who dies, accidentally, perhaps, in a boating accident. In the large, unused library, Florence teaches herself to read. She creates her own language of made-up words, in which the story is narrated. There is a second, dangerous, governess and a terrible ending. Wonderful and odd.

Dandy Gilver & The Proper Treatment Of Blood Stains by Catriona McPherson

(Hodder $27.99)

A whodunnit set in 1926. Dandy Gilmore, a flapper, is asked to pose as a ladies' maid to find out why the lady of the house's husband has gone barking mad and is threatening to kill his wife. Downstairs, the servants lead their own life of intrigue and petty thievery. There is romance, crime and a lot of fun along the way.

The Shadows In The Street by Susan Hill

(Chatto & Windus $39.99)

This is the fifth in Hill's brilliant Simon Serrailler series in which the Serrailler family saga - they are a small, intense, clever family who live in an English cathedral town - takes precedence over the crime. The crime solver is painter and cop, Simon, the only member of the family not to have become a doctor. There has been a death in the family, that of the mother, who held the opinionated-and-given-to-holding-grudges family together. The details of her life are now slowly (as is the way in Hill's books) coming to light. Enigmatic Simon, the centre of the stories, is a wonderful character.

Tony & Susan by Austin Wright

(Atlantic $35)

Susan Morrow found happiness, in American suburbia, with her second husband. Twenty years on, first hubby Edward writes to ask if he can send her his novel - the one she thought he'd never write. This re-release of a 1993 novel is the story of Susan reading Edward's story and how his story overtakes her life, in ways as disturbing as the tale.

- Michele Hewitson

FANTASY

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

(Gollancz $39.99)

The best science fiction novel of the year is also the best first novel of the year. Rajaniemi has a PhD in string theory, and the hard science underlying this joyous interplanetary rollercoaster ride is as impressive as the uses he makes of it. The opening chapters demand concentration, introducing a bewildering array of concepts and post-human characters. A grand fusion of heist movie, love story, and space opera.

Land Of The Burning Sands by Rachel Neumeier

(Orbit $25.99)

Rachel Neumeier runs Hannu Rajaniemi a close second for 2010's most exciting new talent. The first standalone novel in her Griffen Mage sequence appeared earlier this year; this is the second, and it's even better. An escaped slave gets caught up in the conflict between humans and griffens: the very best sort of conflict to read about, because there's no evil, no dark lord, just two very different, very well evoked ways of life, and no easy way of bridging the culture gap. Neumeier's characters are wonderful, and her spare, intelligent writing reminds me of the young Ursula Le Guin.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

(Vintage $29.99)

Yet another astonishingly assured first novel. To say this is the best paranormal romance I've ever read is to severely undersell Marion's achievement. Somehow, he's written an involving love story about a zombie's seemingly doomed passion for a human. Does he cheat, by making his zombie the non-icky, non-shuffling, non-brains-guzzling sort? He does not. Our Juliet meets her Romeo the day he eats her boyfriend. Not a satire, not a comedy.

The Tongues Of Serpents by Naomi Novik

(Voyager $38)

Naomi Novik's Temeraire series is insanely addictive. It's also exceptionally well-researched historical fiction, detailing the unfolding of the Napoleonic wars as they might have proceeded with just one slight alteration, which Novik manages to make so plausible you quickly start taking it for granted. Temeraire and his human captain have been transported to Australia, where they have to deal with Governor William Bligh, formerly Captain Bligh. Plus, bunyips. Compulsively readable.

The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

(Orbit $34.99)

The heroic fantasy epic is done so badly, so often. It's a treat to see someone set out to do it right. This is the first in a mega-series. The central story of a betrayed man's struggle to free himself from slavery comes to a satisfying conclusion within these pages. At the same time, we're given only the initial fragments of a far larger story concerning - what else? - the imminent end of the world. Huge cast, huge themes, huge fun.

- David Larsen

CHICK LIT

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

(Bloomsbury $29.99)

I wonder what it is that appeals most about this book, now made into a movie? Is it really the soul-searching and spiritual enlightenment in Bali and India? I suspect it is the divine food and prospect of love that pulls in most readers and that the pages at the Indian ashram are turned more rapidly than the pizza and pasta and the encounters with yummy Felipe in Bali. But maybe I am selling everyone short. Remember to check out the male-equivalent -

Drink Play F@#k: One Man's Search for Anything Across Ireland, Las Vegas And Thailand

. Now that sounds like fun.

One Secret Summer by Leslie Lokko

(Orion $39.99)

If you're packing just one book in the suitcase for the holidays, please make it this one. Lesley Lokko's tale of a family with dark secrets is one of the best I've read this year. Page turner, unputdownable, as you read on to find out what happened all those years ago in the south of France that makes the older brothers in the glamorous Keeler family despise their younger sibling Josh so much. A busy thread of complicated lives.

So What If I'm Broken by Anna McPartlin

(Penguin $40)

Rather a bleak tale, with a cluster of four sad Dublin souls bought together when Alexandra, wife of Tom, goes missing. Those Irish do enjoy their misery. I found it a bit difficult to remember who was who as the book came and went between the different characters. As the title suggests, this isn't a happy read, although it does let its characters find resolution. The best characters are an alcoholic foul-mouthed mum who doesn't miss a beat and her 17-year-old grandson who is also refreshingly honest. Best read with a bottle of gin at hand.

Rescue by Anita Shreve

(Little, Brown $38.99)

Compassionate tale about medic Peter Webster who raises daughter Rowan after sending his alcoholic wife (Rowan's mum) packing when she nearly kills herself and Rowan in a drink-drive car crash. Shreve's rescue refers not only to Peter's passion for rescuing in his line of work but how he rescues his family unit and how hard it can be to forgive. Shreve writes in a way that is so down- to-earth and believable, resisting any temptation for unnecessary embellishment.

Forgotten by Susan Lewis

(Arrow $38.99)

This, too, is a tale to tug at heartstrings. Lisa and David were once lovers, and have a second chance to rekindle their feelings for each other. Life couldn't seem better, both have successful careers, a beautiful house, a bright future (albeit a tension with David's daughter) - until David, a rising politician, shows all the signs of early dementia. You'll see the diagnosis coming but it doesn't make it any less painful.

- Donna McIntyre

TEEN READS

Virtual Kombat by Chris Bradford

(Puffin $9.99)

Part of the "Pocket Money Puffins" release of books to celebrate the imprint's 70th anniversary, this is an ideal stocking-filler for younger teenage boys who are more tempted by computer games than reading. Chris Bradford, author of the best-selling Young Samurai series, creates gripping action from start to finish in this adventure about a future in which the adults have been wiped out by a pandemic. Young Scott lives on the street, scavenging for food. The only hope for him and the other homeless children is when the organisers of

Virtual Kombat

, a martial arts computer game, send around a van to feed and house the "lucky few" orphans. Scott is picked up, becoming a tester for the game. But when his friend Kate fails to return from the Virtual Arena, he discovers "virtual" and "reality" are dangerously fused.

The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

(Puffin $26)

Move over Percy Jackson, the Kanes are here. The first in a promised trilogy, Rick Riordan moves from Greek to Egyptian gods with brother and sister team Carter and Sadie, who witness their archaeologist father explode the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and from there launch on a page-turning adventure through time and place, the real world and the underworld. The Kanes discover their family is linked to a secret order that has existed since the time of the pharaohs, and to the gods themselves. A brilliant introduction to Egyptian mythology from a modern perspective and narrated from the siblings' point of view.

Ganglands Russia by Ross Kemp

(Puffin $23)

The second in Ross Kemp's

Ganglands

series for teens, though a standalone title, this is not one for younger readers. Teenagers, however, will love the suspense, intrigue and action. An exciting thriller from the start, it sees the initially unwilling Alexei forced to spy on the dark underworld of Moscow's gangs after his girlfriend is attacked. Eagles 88, a group of neo-Nazis, are terrorising Moscow, attacking innocent people. Alexei is recruited by crime fighting organisation Trojan Industries to go undercover in the gang to stop them once and for all. An exciting read.

The Dead Charlie Higson

(Puffin $26)

Not for the squeamish, this sequel to

The Enemy

has been impatiently awaited, particularly since Higson's appearance at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in May this year. A complete change of direction to his

Young Bond

series, the zombie-style theme will appeal to older teen boys who like graphic imagery of bodily functions. A sort of prequel to

The Enemy

- insofar as the events happen earlier, though with a completely different set of characters - the action begins with the adults either dead or suffering from a disease leaving them desperate for human flesh - the children. When a group of kids holed up in a boarding school are attacked by their former teachers, they head for the countryside but are soon cut off and forced to retreat towards London. A fast-paced and gory read, but teens will love it. A third is promised next year.

Witch & Wizard: The Gift by James Patterson with Ned Rust

(Random House $29.99)

Another in the current trend of teens braving the big, bad world on their own, this time in a fantasy world. The main characters are Whit and Wisty Allgood, who have escaped imprisonment by the wicked totalitarian regime known as the New Order. This regime will stop at nothing to suppress liberty, music and books, art and magic - and normal teenagers. Now part of a hidden community of teens, the sibling witch and wizard have established themselves as leaders of the Resistance.

The Gift

is the second in a series, again, but can be read without prior knowledge of the first. This page-turning adventure would indeed make a good Christmas "gift".

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

(Penguin $23.95)

For most of his 15 years, "John Smith" has been an alien on the run. After fleeing to Earth when his home planet was destroyed by the voracious Mogadorians, he and eight other children of the Garde (protectors of the planet Lorien) have been apart, and in hiding. The nine are held together by a charm, and the Mogadorians can only kill them in order, but One, Two and Three are already dead, and "John" is fourth in line. Ostensibly written by an elder of Lorien, Pittacus Lore,

I Am Number Four

has been made into a DreamWorks movie, due out in February. So read the book first.

Little Vampire Women by Louisa May Alcott and Lynn Messina

(HarperCollins $27.99)

Christmas won't be Christmas without vampires, so this classic/horror mash-up could fit the bill. The four March girls are "good" vampires - they eschew humans and stick to pigs' blood, generally (though occasionally Beth likes a kitten). For best benefit, of course, the reader should have knowledge of the real thing: Alcott's bloodless version is available in a new Penguin Classics Red Edition release which benefits the global fund to help eliminate Aids in Africa. Other titles in the series include

Wuthering Heights

,

Kidnapped

and

Vanity Fair

(all $26).

Dash & Lily's Book Of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

(Allen & Unwin $19.99)

A Christmas story for the alt.kids. Dash, home alone by design for the festive season, finds a notebook stashed between volumes in his favourite bookstore; messages within from the mysterious Lily set them both off on a series of dares, the prize for which could be true romance. Cool, literary and timely, too. From the authors of indie hit

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

.

Boys Don't Cry by Malorie Blackman

(Random House $29.99)

Just when Dante thinks his life is beginning to turn out okay - off to uni with his family worries behind him - an old flame turns up with a nasty surprise: his baby daughter. Meanwhile, Dante's so-called friends seem hellbent on making his gay brother Adam miserable. The plot turns into three men and a baby and might sound like a cautionary tale for young men that lurches from crisis to crisis, but the subject matter is really family, and in Blackman's adept hands it sings with a warm heart and gentle humour.

The Double Life Of Cassiel Roadnight by Jenny Valentine

(HarperCollins $19.99)

Chap is on the run. But a chance occurrence at a halfway house is about to change his life forever. The wardens insist Chap is, in fact, Cassiel Roadnight, a boy with uncannily similar features to one who vanished at a village Guy Fawkes celebration two years previously. He decides to assume Cassiel's identity. Cassiel, unlike Chap, has a loving, stable family - or so he thinks. A chilling encounter with one of Cassiel's peers leads Chap on a quest to discover the truth behind his disappearance and in the process he unearths some profound and startling truths about his own past and identity.

Double Life

makes for a spine-tingling read. Valentine paints a vivid and subtly sinister picture of Cassiel's family home, tempered by moments of quiet humour and jubilation. (Some themes may be unsuitable for younger readers).

- Isobel Marriner and Sue Baxalle

YOUNG READS

The Project by Brian Falkner

(Walker Books $19.99)

Award-winning North Shore author Falkner (

Brainjack

) strikes again. This thriller sees Kiwi Luke and his American spy-obssessed friend Tommy taking on Nazi master-criminals after they discover a plot involving the Renaissance genius Da Vinci and the most boring book in the world. Has all the finer attributes of a Dan Brown page-turner but you'll need to read this book to find out why

The Da Vinci Code

is misnamed.

The Longest Whale Song by Jacqueline Wilson

(Random House hardback $34.99)

Another book from this popular author with a knack for getting to the heart of young people's feelings. After growing up in a single-parent family and having her mum to herself, Ella is not happy with her new life - a stepdad with habits she can't abide and a new sibling she doesn't want on the way. But after pregnancy complications leave her mum in a coma, Ella and her family will need to pull together.

The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

(HarperCollins $39.99)

This 50th anniversary edition of the children's fantasy is a welcome return of a classic that thrilled and terrified many youngsters in the 60s and 70s. Filled with dark spirits, wizards and dwarves, it is the story of two youngsters who become the guardians of the weirdstone. This jewel was made to protect the world from the threat of an evil force, but it is also sought by those whose intentions are malign. Attractively hardbound, it will make a great Christmas gift, and an heirloom for future generations.

Madame Pamplemousse And The Enchanted Sweetshop by Rupert Kingfisher

(Bloomsbury $24.95)

Child cooking prodigy Madeleine is devastated when she is bullied by the new girl at school. Enter the mysterious Madame BonBon who offers solace and delicious, mysterious white chocolate truffles which soon have her feeling better. However, these addictive sweets have an evil secret centre and soon Madeleine is drawn into a web of enchantment that takes her back to the distant origins of her mysterious mentor, the epicure Madame Pamplemousse. A gorgeous frothy confection by the delightfully named Mr Kingfisher. Even the cover looks good enough to eat.

Totally Bindi by Jess Black and Bindi Irwin

(Random House $24.99)

A big book of Bindi stuff from Australia's most famous daughter, this is, as you might expect, heavy on wildlife and outdoorsy things as she follows in her late father's footsteps. But there is also a nod to the modern miss with personality quizzes, tweets and sleepover secrets. A little cheesy - in some ways it's a celebration of the youngster herself - but there are great wildlife pictures and the content is mostly educational.

The Kiwi Fossil Hunter's Handbook by James Crampton and Marianna Terezow

(Random House $39.99)

This volume would be a perfect Christmas gift for a dinosaur lover. Geologist Crampton makes fossil-hunting in New Zealand accessible for kids, from the basics of what a fossil is to where and how to find them. He includes the geological background and other details of each site and colour images of fossils that can be found there. A family-friendly guide with sketches and colourful mini-posters, it includes a glossary, time scale chart and driving instructions for getting to the locations. Perfect for that budding paleontologist.

Billionaire Boy by David Walliams

(HarperCollins $24.99)

Joe Spud is the richest 12-year-old in the world. His dad invented the Freshbum toilet roll, and lavishes him with all money can buy. The one thing he doesn't have is a friend. An amusing style, there are lots of lists such as things Joe has, of school lessons, of things to do with $50 notes and of rude words (frink, oodplops and nockynooters included). We accompany Joe as he learns the real value of friendship and his father learns how to express his love for his son and face the fact that money can't buy you happiness. The illustrations by Tony Ross are an integral part of the story, as is the typography.

Gulliver's Travels adapted by Sarah Willson

(Puffin $17.99)

Timed to coincide with the Boxing Day release of the movie starring Jack Black, this may be just right for a young movie fan. But if you expect a reprint of the classic by Jonathan Swift, think again. This version sees a modern Gulliver swept out of his comfort zones in Manhattan and on to an island in the Bermuda Triangle. Lilliput, of course, and as a wannabe travel writer for the

New York Tribune

. A light read which may amuse, but should definitely be followed by reading the original.

The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader by C.S.Lewis

(HarperCollins $19.99)

Hardly a new book, but the new release of the children's classic, to accompany the third Narnia movie, is timely for a Christmas gift. We rejoin Lucy and Edmund as they return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace. They meet up with Prince Caspian for a trip across the sea aboard the royal ship, the Dawn Treader. This version includes eight centre pages of glossy photos from the movie.

The Naughty Kid's Book Of Nature by Des Hunt and Scott Tulloch

(HarperCollins $29.99)

Award-winning children's writer Des Hunt, with a passion for science, teams up with illustrator Scott Tulloch to present squashed hedgehogs, dead pukeko, blood, guts and maggots. As the title suggests, this book aims to answer the real questions kids have about nature. We learn that pee and poo play a vital role in nature and how many native species came to exist in New Zealand at all. Entertaining and useful.

- Isobel Marriner and Sue Baxalle

PICTURE BOOKS

Willbee The Bumblebee by Craig Smith and Maureen Thomson

(Scholastic $26)

Smith follows up the huge hit he had with

The Wonky Donkey

with another catchy book/CD combo, this time adapting a story by his mum, Maureen Thomson. Katz Cowley again supplies the illustrations as Willbee loses his black and yellow jumper but gets it back with the help of his mates. On the CD the rhymes are set to a tune reminiscent of the

Stray Cat Strut

and there's even a bit of kazoo thrown in.

Hill & Hole by Kyle Mewburn

(Puffin $18.99)

From the creator of the award-winning

Old Hu-Hu

comes another rumination on the meaning of life. Hill and Hole are best friends but they are not quite satisfied with their lot: Hole yearns to see the sunrise (like Hill) and Hill wants to feel the earth breathe (like Hole). They ask Mole to help them out in a beautifully paced story that is given extra oomph by Vasanti Unka's glorious use of colour and artfully placed text.

The Moon & Farmer McPhee by Margaret Mahy

(Random House $36.99)

Lovely hardback made all the more impressive by the clever use of cut-outs and gatefolds that highlight David Ellliot's lively illustrations. Mahy tells the tale about Farmer McPhee, who no longer appreciates the simple things in life. When his animals begin frolicking under a full moon he tries to shut the nonsense down but the beauty of the moon starts to rouse something in him.

Up And Down by Oliver Jeffers

(HarperCollins $29.99)

Jeffers' unique illustrations and quirky stories are awinning combination, especially in hardback. Here, the boy and the penguin (last seen in

Lost and Found

) return for another adventure, with the penguin deciding he wants to fly so much that he's prepared to give up the boy's company and their favourite game, backgammon.

Alf Red's Broccoli Rocket by Simon Clearwater

(Puffin $19.99)

Inventive Alf decides he's going to build a rocket to take him to the moon. The materials are a little unconventional - broccoli, corn chips, courgettes, cheese dip and bacon - but Alf fashions a fine spaceship. Unfortunately, his little brother spies him hiding the rocket's parmesan cheese key in the freezer. Ted takes off and Alf must rescue him by raiding the kitchen again to build a new ship. A flight of imagination in more ways than one, and delightfully illustrated by Andrew Dopheide.

Scaredy-Cat, Splat! by Rob Scotton

(HarperCollins $26.99)

Renowned for his offbeat stories and wacky illustrations, Scotton doesn't disappoint with this latest tale about Splat, who is determined to be the scariest cat at his school's Halloween dress-up day. His spider outfit isn't provoking any shivering spines and he looks destined to fail until he makes a bit of a pumpkin of himself. The vibrant illustrations in this hardback will catch any child's attention.

It's A Book by Lane Smith

(Walker $29.99)

Smith kicks back at the age of iPads and Kindles with this tongue-in-cheek exchange between a tech-savvy jackass and a monkey engrossed in a book, seemingly the classic

Treasure Island

. The impatient jackass quizzes the stoic monkey about how the book scrolls down and whether you can blog with it. In one scene, the jackass turns an exchange between Long John Silver and Jim into txt speak. Sly humour, with eye-catching illustrations.

The Tall Man And The Twelve Babies by Tom Niland Champion and Kilmeny Niland

(Allen & Unwin $29.99)

A mother-and-son collaboration, produced with the help of another family member, talented illustrator Deborah Niland. There are messages about love and co-operation in this curious tale about a long and lean man with wild hair who lives with 12 babies: six girls (all called Charlene) and six boys (all called Alistair). When he gets locked outside with the girls, the Charlenes and Alistairs push and pull him through the catflap.

Morris The Mankiest Monster by Giles Andrae

(Random House $19.99)

Kids who enjoy gross-out humour will get a kick out of this tale about a monster whose hygiene leaves a lot to be desired. It's not a story for the faint-hearted as Morris searches the crevices of his body for bugs to eat, pops boils, eats bogies from his nose and bathes in the sewer. Andrae (of

Pants

and

More Pants

fame) is in his element and Sarah McIntyre backs him up with lurid illustrations.

Brian Saves Christmas by Yvonne Morrison

(Scholastic $18.99)

Following the success of

A Kiwi Night Before Christmas

, Morrison puts a NewZild spin on yuletide yarn Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The other sheep dismiss runty nerd Brian until he saves the day when fog settles in on Christmas Eve and prevents them from pulling Santa's tractor so he can deliver his presents.

- Graham Hepburn