I often post book recommendations in January, but I have read so much already this year that I decided to write about my favourites now. Taste in books is a very personal thing, but maybe you’ll find something here that you enjoy.
I read a jumble of things I happen upon at the Lilliput library or op shops, new books in the tiny but impressive village library, books passed on by family members, books that are recommended on my favourite podcast, Backlisted, and things people recommend on Twitter. Thanks to everyone who has shared their favourites with me!
This year I also started using a reading app, StoryGraph. I have resisted using GoodReads because I try and avoid anything owned by Amazon, but when I heard about this new app I was sold (that’s a figure of speech, since it’s free)! It’s great for recording what you have read and what you want to read, setting yourself goals and looking at reading stats if you’re that sort of nerdy person (I am), and seeing what other people have thought of some book you’re considering reading. It also gives recommendations based on the preferences you enter and what you have already read. I have found it excellent – its especially good when you’re in the library or bookshop and can consult your ‘to-read pile’ on your phone.
I’ve only included books I really liked here – there’s no room for the ho-hum ones. On with the books, but just beware that some of the links to Wikipedia pages are likely to include spoilers!
There are so many urgent problems in the world – poverty and inequality, Covid, climate change, the biodiversity crisis – that I have to start here. Can books save us? Possibly not, but they can describe the issues, suggest solutions and motivate us to act. Happily there are many people with useful ideas out there, and writers who can communicate them clearly.
I thoroughly recommend Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by economic anthropologist Jason Hickel. The first part of this book is pretty grim, as it outlines the problems we face, but it does have solutions. It is, at heart, a critique of our current capitalist system and demonstrates that its obsession with everlasting economic growth is responsible for our ills. At the heart of the evils of capitalism is colonialism, which is a major focus of the book. Hickel does show, though, that humans can flourish in a post-capitalist (and post-colonial) world – bring it on!
Another thought-provoking recent book is The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by philosopher Roman Krznaric. With admirable clarity, Krznaric describes the issues with short-term thinking which beset our age and have led to our current crises. He has gathered wisdom from cultures around the globe and throughout history to prompt us to become long-term thinkers and reshape humanity’s future. He demonstrates that Indigenous cultures lead the way, with their priorities built around multiple generations, past and future. Māori tikanga receives special mention, and he cites Nanaia Mahuta. This is another very worthwhile read.
The BWB Texts series, from New Zealand publisher Bridget Williams Books, is always good on current issues. I thoroughly recommend its Living With the Climate Crisis: Voices from Aotearoa. Edited by Tom Doig, it brings together short essays by a diverse range of authors, from teenage activists and scientists to local body politicians and journalists. Māori and Pasifika perspectives come through strongly.
History and current issues are intimately related, as some of my favourite recent history reads show. BWB Texts are again to the fore. The Platform: The Radical Legacy of the Polynesian Panthers by Melani Anae is a lively history of this activist organisation by one of its founding members. It is a very personal account, but also grounded in Anae’s work as a scholar in Pacific Studies. With the New Zealand Government offering an apology for the Dawn Raids – one of the events which spurred the foundation of the Panthers in the 1970s – this is a timely read and I thoroughly recommend it.
Also from BWB Texts comes Alice Te Punga Somerville’s Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook. Written as Aotearoa marked 250 years since Cook arrived in this place, it offers a brilliant Māori perspective on that explorer and the multitude of memorials (in this country and elsewhere) to him. It is at once tragic and amusing; it is brief, brilliantly written, and hard to put down. This history is topical – only this week protesters pulled down a statue of Cook in Victoria, British Columbia, threw it into the harbour, and replaced it with red dresses, symbols of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Another excellent history from Bridget Williams Books – a bigger book this time – is Te Hāhi Mihinare: The Māori Anglican Church by Hirini Kaa. Kaa is a priest and historian steeped in the culture of Ngāti Porou, so unsurprisingly this is a deeply informed book. It is very readable and even humorous at times; you don’t need to be Anglican or even religious in any way to enjoy this book. Perhaps its major theme is the agency of Māori in the development of the church, often in the face of opposition from English and colonial Anglican authorities. This is a deserving prize-winner.
The final history book I wish to recommend comes from the other side of the world. In The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel, David Gange takes an unusual approach to researching history. He kayaked around the Atlantic coast of Britain, Ireland and associated islands, stopping off to visit local libraries and archives and collect oral history. Taking a seaward view of these places, and the connections between them, makes a lot of sense: motorised travel by land and air are relatively recent developments in their history. This book was especially interesting to me because I have ancestors from Shetland, the western highlands of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, but I think it would have a broader appeal. Historians will enjoy Gange’s novel approach to research. He also writes beautifully about the natural world.
Memoirs and personal essays
I like a good memoir. The personal essay collection seems to be having a moment at present. These can seem self-indulgent, but done well they are great. I can highly recommend Times Like These by Michelle Langstone and All Who Live on Islands by Rose Lu. Both write evocatively of their families and childhoods – Langstone grew up in Auckland, and Lu migrated here from China as a young child. The stories are frank and deeply personal and extend into their adult lives. Langstone’s writing is powered by her grief at the death of her father, and her struggles with fertility. Lu portrays vividly the varied lives of 3 generations of a migrant family, and the Wellington tech world in which she works.
Of course, personal essay collections have been around for a while. Inspired by the Backlisted podcast, I read in translation the 1970s collection The Summer Book by Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson. It’s not precisely biographical, but closely based on her mother and niece. It portrays with masterly simplicity the lives of a child and grandmother on an island during summer. I loved it and was inspired then to read A Winter Book, a collection of various Jansson short pieces collected together in translation after her death. It is wonderful too.
One strand of memoir focuses primarily on the natural world. I’m fond of nature writing, and I loved Findings by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. This beautifully written collection of essays explores her personal experiences of different aspects of the natural world in various parts of Scotland. The very first book I read this year was another cracking book of nature writing: Under the Stars: A Journey Into Light by Matt Gaw. We live in a world invaded by artificial light: Gaw investigates its effects and seeks out experiences of natural darkness and light around England and Scotland.
Fantasy and science fiction
Before you skip this section because you don’t like these sorts of books, let me encourage you to give these genres a go! Some people dismiss them as escapist (not that there’s anything wrong with escapist reading), but the alternative worlds and societies invented by sci fi and fantasy writers provide powerful commentary on our own communities and world – they can be great triggers for analysis and critique of the way we live, and imagining how we might face the future. Indeed, in The Good Ancestor, discussed above, Krznaric suggests that sci fi is a great tool for turning us into long-term thinkers. And an interesting recent article in the Guardian on current ‘cli fi’, or climate fiction, attracted lots of comments pointing out that sci fi authors have been writing about this stuff for decades.
I read prize-winning sci-fi author Octavia Butler for the first time this year, and was immediately hooked. Her Earthseed series (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents), published in the 1990s, is set in the near future (2020s and thereafter) in a post-apocalyptic USA; the main character is a young woman who founds a new religion. In the 1980s Xenogenesis or Lilith’s Brood series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago) humans have all but destroyed themselves through nuclear war, but the remnant is rescued by an alien species, which later resettles Earth with them. All of these books are exciting and peopled with great characters; they are sometimes brutally violent though. They explore many themes but with Butler’s African American identity it is not surprising that gender, race and slavery are the most significant.
A very different sort of historical sci-fi book is The Inheritors, by William Golding, best-know for Lord of the Flies. I came to this intriguing 1955 book through Backlisted. It reimagines the lives of a small band of Neanderthals, and their contacts with Homo sapiens. Although we know a lot more about early humans and related species now than we did in the 1950s, this remains a powerful read – highly recommended.
The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox was my favourite read of 2019; I read it again this year so I could more fully appreciate a session by Knox at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. It was even better on a second reading! It’s a fantasy novel with a page-turning plot, but also rich in deeper themes. It was a privilege to meet the author and have her sign my copy. She was interviewed at the festival by another Wellington fantasy writer, H.G. Parry. That inspired me to read Parry’s The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep. It’s an amusing whirlwind adventure, with a great Wellington setting, featuring a mixture of literary characters who have come to life. It’s a special treat for booklovers and literary scholars – if you like Victorian literature you will particularly enjoy this book, though it’s not essential to know the featured characters already (alongside such famous Victorians as Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, there are a brilliant 1930s girl detective, multiple Mr Darcys, and Maui). The family at the centre of the story is also very well developed. Another more light-hearted and page-turning fantasy adventure with a bookish setting is The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix. I liked it very much despite not being in the target young adult market!
I’ve been struck by how many brilliant New Zealand fiction writers there are just now. Kudos to them, and to the publishers pumping out all these fabulous books in a small market – though some are also getting the international releases they deserve. There are two novels by New Zealanders that have particularly gripped me so far this year. Nothing to See by Pip Adam is a beautifully written and unexpectedly strange book about addiction, technology and various other things – although the book touches on big issues, she is especially good at capturing the minutiae of everyday life. Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey really is brilliant. Set in – and adjacent to – a Nazi concentration camp, it captures in a gripping, sensitive and chilling way the horrors of that place and the infection of evil. The way she handles a complex plot told from multiple points of view is masterly.
Speaking of masterly writers, recently I read Ali Smith for the first time. Wow! She is both highly literary and a teller of page-turning tales. I loved How To Be Both, and immediately started her Seasonal Quartet series – I’ve just finished the first of them, Autumn. I love her use of language – it’s literally poetic at times – and her characters are wonderful. The books move seamlessly between present and past. So good.