William Colenso: His life and journeys by A.G. Bagnall and G.C. Petersen, edited by Ian St George

(Otago University Press $65)

Colenso, pioneer printer, missionary, botanist, linguist, explorer, trader, politician and, for many years, outcast, has enjoyed a revival. Last year there was Peter Wells' personal exploration of Colenso's life, The Hungry Heart, and Ian St George's selection of his many letters to the editor, Give Your Thoughts Life. Now comes a slightly updated edition of this classic biography, first published in 1948.

It's a fascinating read and further underlines what a remarkable - albeit flawed - human being Colenso was.


Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning
(Profile Books $55)

Sir Stamford Raffles, who founded the British trading settlement of Singapore and gave his name to a string of hotels, turns out to have come from rather more humble beginnings than the poshness his name suggests. All of which makes his success, when breeding was all and in the teeth of opposition from the British East India Company, the more remarkable. An excellent biography about a fascinating subject.

Paper: An elegy by Ian Sansom
(Fourth Estate $29.99)

"Without paper," writes Ian Sansom, "our lives would be unimaginable." The paperless future is taking its time arriving, and paper remains one of civilisation's vital materials. This is partly a history, but also a celebration of the many diverse and sometimes weird ways in which paper has been used: to write on, of course, but also for board games, cigarette papers, Post-it notes, teabags, lampshades, confetti, coffins. Fittingly, it's an attractive book, printed on rather nice paper.

Fallout From Fukushima by Richard Broinowski
(Scribe $35)

A scary account of the horror unleashed when an earthquake and tsunami hit a nuclear power station in Japan. It's unashamed propaganda. But such was the level of destruction, incompetence and dishonesty resulting from the disaster, a partisan approach seems understandable.

The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somaliaby James Fergusson
(Random House $39.99)

As failed states go, Somalia is about as failed as can be. Blame two decades of war, famine and epic levels of corruption. There's the local al Qaeda offshoot, which would be comic if it wasn't so deadly (sample madness: banning samosas, because the triangular shape is a symbol of the Christian trinity). Depressing?

Could be, if it weren't for Fergusson's skill as a good old-fashioned, on-the-ground reporter who goes where things are happening and listens to the people involved.