Staff Picks: The Best DVDs of 2023

It’s time once again to present the best films and TV shows of 2023 in our collection, as chosen by our librarians. There were a lot of common favourites among the staff this year, including a few that haven’t made it into the collection yet. I’ve included all their recommendations here; hopefully you’ll find a new favourite film among them.

Shinji’s Picks

The Blue CaftanThe blue caftan
Delicate and tender, this touching LGBT drama centres on a middle-aged married couple who run a traditional caftan shop in Sele, Morocco. Hiring a young handsome apprentice to keep up the demand tests their long, caring relationship and they must face their secrets and reality. The actor-turned-director Maryam Touzani weaves this unconventional love story with great care and compassion. A lot of feelings are going on between the three characters, but Touzani’s nuanced direction, with exquisite tempo, effectively uses their gestures, silence and, most importantly, ‘gaze’ to bring out their deep emotions. It’s a meticulously crafted, detailed work including the lighting and the colour. This is only Touzani’s second feature and will surely put her on the map of world cinema. A little gem.

Catalonian filmmaker Carla Simon’s fresh breeze-like debut Summer 1993 was hailed by both critics and audiences alike, and another sunny pastoral tale about a peach farm family Alcarras, is even more wonderful, but bitter. The Sole (Catalonian for “sun”) family has been farming for generations, but they are now facing eviction just because there is no signed document. The worry looms over this extended family, affecting everyone in a different way, while they try to carry on their life as normal. Simon portrays them with great attention to small moments of everyday life, and her masterful character study allows every member of the family to shine. These non-professional actors, especially children (all from the region), are so natural and alive. Their future looks bleak, but by giving us a glimpse of alluring Catalonian rural life Simon makes what could have been a social realism story wonderfully charming and lovable. This marvellous ensemble drama won the Golden Bear (best film) at Berlin International Film Festival in 2022. Deservedly so.

Icelandic filmmaker Hlynur Palmason gained critical acclaim for A White, White Day and his latest effort Godland, inspired by late-19th century photos of Icelandic countryfolks, is a larger scale, more ambitious work. This historical saga follows a young Danish priest who was sent to Iceland to build a church. As he travels to reach his destination he gets to know and photograph its people, but the stunningly beautiful yet brutal wildness and the tension with a rough-edged Icelandic guide turns it into an ordeal. This harshness and intensity echo some vigorous dramas such as There will be blood or The Power of the Dog and it is indeed a powerful film like them. With some impressive long-take shots, it’s also one of the most visionary films in years, capturing the amazing Icelandic landscape. Showing his unique aesthetic, Palmason takes us an incredible cinematic journey. Brilliant.

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Staff Picks: The Best CDs & Vinyl of 2023 – Part 2

I’m Mark, the Music & Film Specialist at Wellington City Libraries. Every month this year my colleague’s Sam, Neil and I reviewed some new material for the music collection at Te Awe Brandon Street Library. You can check out each of our our Top 10 picks here. Following on from our picks is a selection of titles that other staff members rated as their favourite listens of 2023.

Shinji’s Picks:

Heaven / Sol, Cleo
The U.K. has a long history of producing fantastic female soul singers and now, more than ever, it’s filled with a multitude of talents – Lianne La Havas, Jorja Smith, Yazmin Lacey and Olivia Dean (see below) to name but a few. Among them, the key voice of the mysterious soul collective SAULT, Cleo Sol shines with a unique light due to her mesmerising singing and aura. Both SAULT and Sol have been very active – putting out a lot of impressive albums in a short period of time, and her third album ‘Heaven’ is another glorious work. Listening to this album, which features mostly medium/slow numbers, is an intimate experience. She sensibly keeps everything simple and shares tears, joy, and love with us. Led by her mellifluous yet powerful voice, it’s filled with a warmth and uplifting feeling as if a graceful modern gospel. Incredibly, she dropped another album, ‘Gold’, which is equally wonderful and slightly more defined, two weeks later. There is no doubt that she is an exceptional artist and with her charisma, she could become an influential figure like Erykah Badu. What a talent.

The omnichord real book / Ndegeocello, Meshell
The pandemic lockdown gave Meshell Ndegeocello, one of the most innovative, forward-thinking artists in the last 30 years, an opportunity to reacquaint herself with music. She was tired of looking at the computer screen and started to compose music on an Omnichord, a simple electronic instrument. They bore fruit in this terrific album released from Blue Note Records, collaborating brilliantly with numerous distinctive musicians including Josh Johnson (as the producer as well), Jeff Parker, Jason Moran, and Joan As Police Woman. Drawing from her extensive musical languages, she creates colourful music based on simple motifs which shift around jazz, soul, funk, afrobeat and so on. Her unique bass play as well as the polyrhythmic drums are the core of this impressive music. The album contains 18 tracks with a variety of musical styles and it’s 73 minutes long. Although it’s not easy to absorb at once, this hyper hybrid black American music is a stellar and rewarding listen.

Messy / Dean, Olivia
An alumna from the renowned BRIT school that produced Adele and Amy Winehouse, Olivia Dean gained attention from the very beginning of her career and won the breakthrough artist of the year in 2021 on Amazon Music. Her much-anticipated debut album Messy is indeed a bit of a mess, but a charming one which shows a lot of promise. There’s a touch of Amy Winehouse in her prowess and rich voice that effortlessly drifts between soul, jazz and pop. These songs tell us her personal story – about her Caribbean heritage, family, and love. The album is slightly overproduced, probably to appeal to a mass-audience, but Dean’s presence stays natural and true to herself. The UK has found another fantastic female singer, that’s for sure.

Continue reading “Staff Picks: The Best CDs & Vinyl of 2023 – Part 2”

Staff Picks: The Best CDs & Vinyl of 2023 – Part 1

I’m Mark, the Music & Film Specialist at Wellington City Libraries. Every month this year my colleagues Sam, Neil and I reviewed some new material for the music collection at Te Awe Brandon Street Library. The list below is the Top 10 picks from each us for 2023, the albums we enjoyed listening to most over the course of the year. Some of these titles featured on various critics’ Best of 2023 lists, but others are just albums that struck us as being unique and interesting.

Mark’s Picks:

Sleepwalker / Post, Louise
One of the most successful female fronted ‘Alt-Rock’ bands of the 1990s, whose influence still features prominently in a lot of contemporary bands, Veruca Salt‘s original line-up split acrimoniously after 2 full length albums and an EP, as founding members Louise Post & Nina Gordon went their own ways. Post continued with a couple more heavier albums & EPs under the ‘Veruca Salt’ moniker, while Gordon delivered a couple of much more commercial sounding solo albums. Hatches were apparently buried in 2013 when the bands original line-up, like a lot of other bands of that era, reunited to tour and eventually released a 2015 reunion album. Post & Gordon collaborated with Skating Polly on a 2017 EP, but following some touring in 2018 the band had been dormant. However Louise Post’s return to music was one of the surprising releases of last year, with her first solo album Sleepwalker. Apparently arising, like a lot of material, out of the Covid lockdowns she whittled down 50 or so tracks to the 11 that make up the album. As perhaps to be expected of someone her age, it’s a darker-tinged adult oriented ‘album’, rather than a set of singles. She really digs into mature stories of the domestic comfort/discomfort of long term relationships, alongside more upbeat tracks that work as homages to her own pop past. What’s perhaps the most surprising is how great it all sounds, as she works in a lot of genres and different instrumentation, but never loses focus on investing each track with a hooky, melodic line, disproving the long-held theory that it was Gordon who brought the ‘pop’ voice to Veruca Salt’s original albums. Her immediately distinctive voice is in great shape, and the sympathetic production puts it above the mix, so there is a real clarity to the album & it’s sound.

Rat saw God / Wednesday (Musical group)
Wednesday are a US alt-rock band from North Carolina and ‘Rat Saw God’ (a nice Veronica Mars homage), is their 5th album and first on the prominent indie label Dead Oceans, was hailed as a career breakthrough and ended up on a lot of the Best of 2023 lists last year. Helmed by singer-guitarist-songwriter Karly Hartzman the band takes it’s name from cult UK 90s band ‘The Sundays’. They fuse the vocal stylings of that band’s indie pop with the shoegazy rock of Swirlies, 90s grunge, the noise-pop of Sub Pop bands like Velocity Girl or Spinanes, as well as some alt-Country influences akin to Mojave 3. The twangy distortion creates a dirty/clean sonic aesthetic, and the combined – seemingly disparate – musical elements deliver something that, while obviously trading on past styles, still feels new & fresh. It’s an album of character studies, biting lyrics, and narratives of pain and suffering that reflect both the messy and euphoric moments of the protagonists. While they have been around for a while, there is a real sense of ‘next big new band buzz’ with this album.

Mermaidens / Mermaidens
Mermaidens returned with their fourth full length in 2023. Gone are the, sometimes, obtuse post-punk/psyche-rock overtones of their previous work for a slicker more pop sound, that harks back to the fizzy ‘Alt-Pop’ that ran through bands like Pixies, The Breeders & Belly, with dashes of 80s shoegaze & punk. With Samuel Scott Flynn (Phoenix Foundation) at the helm as producer, there is a real sense of arrival with this album. Every musical element is cleanly locked in place, the song-writing is more immediate & catchy, with plenty of pop hooks, along with more harmonies and shimmery, hypnotic, grooves. Perhaps their best album yet, and clearly one headed for the top in the next local music awards. (VINYL here for Mermaidens).

Continue reading “Staff Picks: The Best CDs & Vinyl of 2023 – Part 1”

Best of 2023: Our top fiction picks!

A beach scene. 2023 is written above 2024 in the ocean, and waves are coming into shore to wash away the old year 2023
Waving goodbye to 2023 (literally and literarily)

As we say goodbye to 2023 and hello to 2024, it is now tradition for us to take stock of the literary year and take note of some of the novels we regarded as highlights.

As always, we aim to cover as wide a mix as possible — from fabulous new Aotearoa New Zealand books to big international bestsellers and major prize-nominated books, not to mention the best of this year’s crime and thriller titles and some standout science fiction and fantasy books. We have selected books that got lots of attention as well as others we felt fell undeservedly under the radar — and we’ve also thrown in a few left-field curveballs of books we just absolutely loved and felt we could not ignore. As is always the case with these lists, some of the selections we make are by their nature subjective and we apologise in advance if we missed any of your favourites out. All in all it’s been a fascinating and exciting year for readers — roll on 2024!

So here we go — Wellington City Libraries’ very subjective list of the top 100 novels of 2023!

2023 Fiction Highlights — Browse the full list
Browse the full list with all our picks, or browse just the topic you enjoy!

Best of 2023: Our top non-fiction picks!

Our list of the top 100 non-fiction books for 2023 is here! It includes the best in memoirs and biographies, poetry, local history, science, social history, art and more. We’ve highlighted an exciting mix of new books made up of hidden gems, popular bestsellers, literary prize winners and acclaimed local talents. There’s plenty to choose from for every kind of reader.

2023 Non-fiction Highlights — Browse the full list
Browse the full list with all our picks, or browse just the topic you enjoy!

We were thrilled to watch the ongoing success of many homegrown authors who have generously graced our physical and online spaces this year, including Redmer Yska for Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station, Arihia Latham (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha) for her sublime debut poetry collection Birdspeak, and the rousing collection of diverse voices found in the anthology A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha. Here are some more Aotearoa specific highlights that you’ll find within our 2023 best of non-fiction list!

For celebrity biographies there’s no prizes given for which ex-Royal’s book topped most bestseller lists this year, but not far behind a Kiwi talent shone through with Sam Neill’s Did I Ever Tell You This?. We’d recommend listening to the eAudiobook version voiced by the actor for the full experience.

In the world of art there’s plenty of talent to admire in the visually stunning and comprehensive volumes Pacific Arts Aotearoa, and Urgent Moments: art and social change. Then, take an integral look into how Māori artists have adapted age-old techniques in their contemporary practices, forming clay workers collective Ngā kaihanga uku

In Science and Environment, American author John Valiant’s Fire Weather is a must-read and recently won the prestigious Baillie Guifford Prize for Non-Fiction. But for local stories on lifetimes spent in the outdoors and helping conservation efforts, look to Dave Towns’ Ahuahu: a conservation journey in Aotearoa New Zealand and Kennedy Warne’s Soundings: diving stories in the beckoning sea. There’s also The Forgotten Forest by Robert Vennell for those wanting to take an illustrated walk through the bush via the page.

Looking under the health umbrella, local author Kristen Phillips wrote a touching memoir, Dad, You’ve Got Dementia, and Dr Emma Espiner’s (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) There’s A Cure For This highlighted significant problems within our medical system and important improvements that can be made for Māori.

Rugby League in New Zealand by Ryan Bodman sums up a national pride, complete with full page photographs of unforgettable games by legendary players. And don’t miss Our Land in Colour: a history of Aotearoa New Zealand 1860-1960 to see a century’s worth of historic photographs seen for the first time in full colour. Find all these local titles, plus their internationally acclaimed counterparts in our best of 2023 selection. Happy reading!