Looking for a good book? I have recommendations! Last January I posted about my favourite fiction reads of 2017 and 2018. This time around I have recommendations from novels I read in 2019, and non-fiction I’ve read over the past couple of years. There’s nothing mediocre here – I only recommend things I really enjoyed or found important.
Saving our world
The year 2020 opened here in Dunedin with an eerie orange sky and visible brown haze – smoke from the massive fires in Australia had travelled some 2000 km across the Tasman Sea. It seemed a frightening portent for the new decade – climate change is here and now; we must act urgently. So, let there be no pussyfooting around – my top book recommendation is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus. He is a Californian climate scientist – he is also an activist who has been moved by his scientific knowledge to change his life and campaign for action. Kalmus writes engagingly about his own family’s experience as they reduce their impact on the environment. The book also serves as a primer on climate change. The changes Kalmus makes are achievable for many of us, and also bring happiness – as the blurb states, ‘Life on 1/10th the fossil fuels turns out to be awesome’. It’s a great read and, even better, now available free online on Peter Kalmus’s website.
Another climate scientist writing engagingly about living a lower impact life is New Zealand’s own Shaun Hendy. In #NoFly: Walking the Talk on Climate Change (2019), he recounts his year without flying – a tricky challenge for academics, who are generally big travellers. Like Kalmus, he provides a brief overview of the latest science on climate along with his own personal experience of travel by land and sea.
Since our economic systems have a huge influence on the planet, revising them is an important part of dealing with environmental problems. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, is a very readable book by a ‘renegade’ economist. She investigates necessary reforms to the way we organise our world so it might fit into the ‘safe and just space for humanity’, with an economy lying between the limits of a just social foundation and ecological ceiling.
Short books on big subjects
The BWB Text series, from excellent New Zealand publisher Bridget Williams Books, has the tagline ‘Short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’. I love this series. It covers a range of historic and contemporary topics. The books are small enough to fit into your pocket or handbag – great for commuting. I’ve already mentioned one outstanding book from this series, Shaun Hendy’s #NoFly. Other recent reads I particularly liked were: The Health of the People by David Skegg; Māui Street by Morgan Godfery; Still counting: wellbeing, women’s work and policy-making by Marilyn Waring; Ko Taranaki Te Maunga by Rachel Buchanan; and A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World by Jess Berentson-Shaw.
I’ve read surprisingly little history over the past couple of years, but there’s one history book I can thoroughly recommend – indeed, it should be compulsory reading for all thinking New Zealanders, plus anyone from further afield who wants to understand this place! Vincent O’Malley has followed up his brilliant study of the Waikato War (The Great War for New Zealand ) with a broader overview of the wars: The New Zealand Wars: Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa. In contrast with the hefty – literally – tome on Waikato, this is a concise book; it is written in O’Malley’s trademark clear and readable style. It is also very well illustrated. It has been great to see this book on bestseller lists; it has an important role to play in increasing New Zealanders’ understanding of events which have an ongoing influence on our society.
Another great history is The Face of Nature: An Environmental History of the Otago Peninsula by Jonathan West. I took a special interest in this book since I live on the Otago Peninsula, but I think it would be of much wider interest: indeed, it won the New Zealand Historical Association’s prize for best history book. It provides a fascinating history of the land and water of this stunning place, and the impact of the people who have lived here.
Memoir and biography
There have been some outstanding memoirs published in New Zealand in recent years. Of those I read, four stood out. We already knew that musician Shayne Carter was a gifted wordsmith thanks to his song-writing. His memoir, with the excellent title Dead People I Have Known, reveals him as a brilliant proponent of longer-form writing also. I found his account of his Dunedin childhood especially powerful. Another powerful memoir of childhood and beyond comes from Helene Wong: Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story. Although my own childhood was very different from those of Carter and Wong, both referred to people and places I knew (including the fruit shop in Rata Street, Naenae!), which added to the interest for me.
A very different sort of memoir is Marilyn Waring’s account of her years as a member of parliament, 1975 to 1984: Marilyn Waring: The Political Years. During one term she was the only woman in the National caucus. Being not just a young woman, but a feminist, she was very different from most of her colleagues, and it was a difficult place to work. Waring is famous for her anti-nuclear stance, which brought down the National Government; the book provides interesting insights into that as well as many other activities of her parliamentary career.
I found Robert Webster’s account of his life in science fascinating. Flu Hunter: Unlocking the Secrets of a Virus reads a bit like a thriller, as he and colleagues travel the world tracking down the origins of new influenza strains. I suspect this book hasn’t had the reach it deserves – it’s a really good read on an important topic.
Moving beyond New Zealand, like many people I was fascinated by Tara Westover’s memoir of her extraordinary childhood in a rural Idaho family preparing for the end times. Educated is quite some read, beautifully written. Another extraordinary life is that of Irish writer Mark Boyle. For some years he lived without money, and in his recent memoir The Way Home: Tales From a Life Without Technology he writes about living in rural Ireland without the conveniences of modern life, including electricity.
When it comes to biography, I recommend Diana Brown’s book The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell. As the blurb states, ‘Whether or not you have heard of pioneering nutritionist Muriel Bell, she has had a profound effect on your health.’ Bell, who was one of the first women academics at the Otago Medical School, was an important nutrition researcher and public servant who influenced several significant public health schemes.
Writing for the young
In 2018 I enjoyed reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, so in 2019 I read some more vintage children’s fantasy books. Like all good fantasy books, they take the reader to another world and thereby illuminate our own. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and Alan Garner‘s Weirdstone of Brisingamen and sequels were good reads; I also enjoyed Garner’s standalone book The Owl Service.
I was reflecting on my own shaping as an historian, which prompted me to re-read a big favourite from my childhood, The Runaway Settlers by Elsie Locke. First published in 1965, this book has stood the test of time. It is based on the true story of a family who escape their violent husband and father, moving from New South Wales to Canterbury, New Zealand. It gives a vivid portrayal of settler life in Aotearoa in the 1860s and does not shirk the difficult topics: domestic violence, poverty, tensions between Māori and Pākehā, worker exploitation and troubles on the goldfields. That may sound bleak, but the book is also a celebration of the determination of its working-class characters, in particular the staunch Mary Small.
Other childhood favourites for me were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, based on her own life in a geographically mobile family on the American western frontier. I didn’t read Wilder’s books again, but I did read a recent biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for biography – it is a long but absorbing story of a woman whose books have been enormously influential in the USA and beyond. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, writer and editor Rose Wilder Lane, also features strongly in the biography. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to know more about the ‘real’ Laura of book and television series fame. Lane, who edited her mother’s books, was significant in the founding of the libertarian movement in US politics, and Wilder largely agreed with her politics. It is interesting to reflect on the contrast between their beliefs and those of left-wing activist Elsie Locke. It seems that the books I loved most in childhood came from opposite ends of the political spectrum!
There can be no doubt about my overall favourite read of 2019 – the prize goes to The Absolute Book by the fabulous Elizabeth Knox. It’s one of those books you regret finishing and want to read again immediately – I do expect to read it again soon. It manages to combine a rip-roaring yarn with much deeper themes. Even if fantasy is not your usual choice of reading, I recommend giving this one a go. Simply brilliant.
It was a joy to discover several authors who were new to me this year. I happened upon a Melissa Harrison novel in a library display and liked it so much that I immediately read the rest of her books! Harrison writes lyrically about the English countryside, but she also writes brilliantly about people. I thoroughly enjoyed her books Clay, At Hawthorn Time, and All Among the Barley.
Another author new to me was Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, the ‘queen of crime’. When I heard she was coming to Dunedin as a visiting professor I thought I should try one of her books! As with Harrison, I immediately wanted to read more after the first one. She has a big back catalogue that will take a long time to get through, but I’ve started with her Karen Pirie books. These are based in a cold cases unit and incorporate intriguing settings in past times. Great reading.
When @nzdodo recommended When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall on Twitter, I was immediately intrigued because of the reference to bicycles as the main form of transport in a post-apocalyptic world! It’s a gripping and tense novel set in a future England, 20 years after a virus killed most of the population; the climate has also changed. It’s quite a thriller and a good read if you don’t find post-apocalyptic fiction a little too depressing.
More familiar writers whose books I enjoyed this year included Fiona Kidman; her This Mortal Boy is an excellent novel set in the 1950s, based on the case of one of the last people to be judicially hanged in New Zealand. And the funniest book I read in 2019 was Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s fantasy set in the end times. I haven’t seen the TV series based on this yet, but the book is fabulous.
I enjoy getting book recommendations myself, even if I could never keep up with everything that sounds intriguing! I hope you find something good through this post – happy reading.