I didn’t have a lot of time for ‘recreational’ reading in 2016, as I was too busy writing – not for this blog, unfortunately! However, I kept a list of all the books I read and gave them scores for both content and writing. I thought I’d mention a few of my favourites here for those looking for a good read.
The novel I enjoyed most this year was Life after life by Kate Atkinson (published 2013). It’s the fabulous tale of Ursula Todd, born in England in 1910 and destined to live her life many times over (at varying lengths). At its heart lies the devastation of World War II and Ursula’s attempts to prevent it. Atkinson notes that the book was sparked by that favourite ‘what if?’ scenario: what if Hitler didn’t come to power? But it’s more than that – a grim but witty meditation on the little things of life, gripping and beautifully written.
I like a bit of speculation and science fiction, and another of my favourites this year was The book of strange new things, by Michel Faber, famous for his Victorian blockbuster The crimson petal and the white. Strange new things tells the story of Peter Leigh, a Christian missionary to the indigenous population of the planet Oasis, colonised by a mysterious American corporation. Like all fiction set beyond Earth, it’s really an exploration of humanity and all our foibles. It’s tinged with sadness and was obviously greatly influenced by Faber’s own circumstances – he wrote it while his wife was dying. I heard a great radio interview he did with Kim Hill when he visited New Zealand for a writer’s festival (warning – it’s a tear-jerker!).
These two novels were both imaginative and written beautifully, and if it’s those qualities you want it’s hard to go past New Zealand’s own Elizabeth Knox. Her work defies easy categorisation – she writes fantasy and horror among other things – but is always intriguing and unpredictable. Her ability to imagine new worlds is remarkable, yet she is also very good at depicting real places. She’s certainly one of the most creative writers out there. I loved her recent novels and have been slowly working my way through her back catalogue. This year I enjoyed Treasure (1992), Black oxen (2001) and Daylight (2003).
A new discovery for me this year was the Australian (US-based) novelist and journalist Geraldine Brooks. I started out with Year of wonders (2001), set in an English village isolated by the plague in 1666. I immediately sought out her other books and I’ve since read Caleb’s crossing (2011), the story of the first indigenous American to graduate from Harvard, in the 1660s; March (2005), on the U.S. Civil War as experienced by the father from Little women; and People of the book (2008), the tale of a Jewish text and its journeys through history, from medieval Spain to the 1990s Bosnian war (it gets bonus points for featuring librarians and conservators as heroes!). They’re the best sort of historical fiction, with compelling characters and page-turning plots bringing the past to life.
Rewriting literary classics seems to be all the rage these days, and over the last few years I’ve followed with interest the projects where well-known authors rewrite works by two of my favourite writers, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. The results have been mixed, but I thoroughly recommend one I read this year, The gap of time, a ‘cover version’ of Shakespeare’s The winter’s tale by the fabulous Jeanette Winterson.
It’s all been about New Zealand history for me this year. There are so many great books coming out it’s impossible to keep up! Three I read in 2016 really stood out, and should be compulsory reading for all who wish to understand better this country’s past and present.
I couldn’t help but like A history of New Zealand women by Barbara Brookes. Not only does it chime with my own historical interests, but it was written by the excellent supervisor of my current project! Putting aside any bias, this really is an important book. The culmination of many years of research and thought, it is a compelling and clearly written account of this country’s past as experienced by women. It’s also well-illustrated, and some of the women’s art works included are a revelation.
Tangata whenua: an illustrated history, by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris, assisted by several others, is another ground-breaking book. It tells the history of Māori from origins to the present in a scholarly but very readable way. I especially enjoyed the earlier sections, by Atholl Anderson, which share the latest insights of archaeology (including DNA analysis) into the origins of Māori and their early years in Aotearoa. However, the entire book is fascinating, and the illustrations are, again, excellent.
The great war for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 by Vincent O’Malley is yet another landmark publication. There has been much discussion in recent years about New Zealanders’ ignorance about our own past, especially when it comes to the wars of the 19th century. We are forever hearing about our involvement in World War I in this centenary period, while the 150th anniversaries of events of the New Zealand Wars, conducted on our own soil, pass quietly by. I was fortunate to attend an enlightened school – Naenae College, a big state school – way back in the 1970s, when the history teacher chose the New Zealand option in our senior year. We studied the NZ Wars and I will never forget the field trip where we visited various battle sites, including one just a block from school (from the battle of Boulcott farm) and others at Pauatahanui and around the Porirua and Hutt Valley districts. Such exposure to NZ Wars history is a privilege all too few New Zealanders have had, but in this book – and his blog at The Meeting Place – Vincent O’Malley helps put that right. He has been researching and writing about Māori history for quite some time now, often in the context of Treaty of Waitangi claims, and The great war for New Zealand brings together that and new research. It is a clear and detailed account of war in the Waikato, placing it in a very broad context from first contact between Waikato Māori and Europeans to the present day, when the consequences of the massive land confiscations following the conflict continue. A must read for all thinking Kiwis and, again, beautifully illustrated.
Kudos must go to the wonderful Bridget Williams Books, publisher of all three of these significant works. My only complaint is that they are huge books and absorbed a very big part of the time I had for reading this year. Tangata whenua and The great war for New Zealand are also heavy (literally) and I had to sit at the table to read them! There is now a more manageable paperbook version of Tangata whenua and both are available as e-books. Still, the hardcovers are beautiful objects and I enjoyed the physical heft of them, despite the awkwardness.
Bridget Williams Books is also responsible for my other favourite non-fiction reads this year, thanks to their excellent BWB Texts series of ‘short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’. They provide a good contrast to BWB’s other massive tomes! I have a subscription and the ones waiting to be read are piling up, but I made it through several in 2016. I especially enjoyed Why science is sexist by Nicola Gaston (spoiler alert – it’s unconscious bias) and Silencing science by Shaun Hendy. I’m no scientist but I like to keep informed about the latest in science and the environment – mostly via the wonderful RNZ National. These two books raise important issues about how we learn about science. I also thoroughly recommend two BWB Texts on politics and society – Ruth, Roger and me by Andrew Dean and The interregnum: rethinking New Zealand, edited by Morgan Godfrey.
Finally, I’m now a dedicated fan of Auckland University Press’s Tell you what series. Susannah Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood edit an annual volume of ‘great New Zealand nonfiction’, gathered from all over the place: magazines, newspapers, radio scripts, blogs … and elsewhere. The topics are wildly varied but always interesting, and the writing is lively. I enjoyed the 2016 edition and have now started on 2017’s. One minor irritation – why is a volume published in 2015, made up of items that appeared in 2015 (sometimes earlier), the 2016 volume? Since that pattern was set with the first edition in 2014, I guess they’re stuck with it!
Happy New Year, and here’s to more good reading in 2017!