Winter reading ideas

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!

Current issues

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

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!

General fiction

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.

HAPPY READING!

The 2020 reading corner

We’ve made it through 2020! I did well in the birthplace lottery and I’m very fortunate to live in Aotearoa New Zealand, which has been less severely hit by the pandemic than most other places. My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones or had major health issues, been on the frontline of healthcare, lost jobs or otherwise struggled in 2020.

It has been a strange year for reading. We had an early and very strict lockdown. For some people that meant more reading, but I was one of another group – pretty big, I think – who found it difficult to read in 2020. In the first half of the year I had very little spare time, as I worked (from home during lockdown) and cared for an ill family member. Because this was all a bit overwhelming, and because of some ongoing chronic health concerns, I took early retirement in June. That gave me more free time, but I still struggled to read. Undoubtedly doomscrolling (voted word of the year in New Zealand by Public Address) had much to do with that: between the pandemic, climate change, US elections and New Zealand elections, there was a lot of news to follow. It was very easy to get distracted by Twitter or news websites or online scrabble (an addiction started during lockdown!). I lost the ability to concentrate.

I wanted to be able to read again, so I created a new reading corner. After a big clearout of my home office I was able to get rid of one filing cabinet, which made space for a comfortable old armchair I picked up in a junk store. I declared this a device-free zone, so I could sit and read there without distraction – it worked!

These, then, were my favourite reads in 2020 – some fresh off the shelves, and some from the underground stacks of the library. Taste is a very personal thing, of course, but maybe you will enjoy some of these too.

Memoirs

My favourite book of 2020 in all categories – indeed, my favourite book of many years – was Diary of a Young Naturalist by Northern Irish writer Dara McAnulty. The ‘young’ of the title is no exaggeration, for this book is the diary he kept when he was 14 years old. Dara is many things: he is a schoolboy, environmental activist, autistic, and a great lover of nature (especially raptors), but he is above all a brilliant writer. He writes of his personal struggles, of his wonderful loving family (all nature lovers, and his mother and siblings are also autistic) and most beautifully his observations of the natural world. Like all really good writing, it is a book to read slowly and savour.

Another book I read slowly, since I kept wanting to reread bits, was The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a 2007 memoir by one of the great masters of nature writing, set in a variety of wild landscapes around Britain and Ireland. If you, like me, love nature writing, I can also recommend a couple of great podcasts by English nature writers: The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison, and Birth of a Naturalist by Jonathan Tulloch. Both happen to be very good novelists as well: last year I devoured all of Harrison’s novels, and this year I enjoyed Give Us This Day by Jonathan Tulloch.

A different sort of memoir about walking in Britain is The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. She and her husband lost their farm and business and became homeless at the same time as he received a terminal diagnosis. This is a beautifully written and very moving description of the big journey they took, walking the English South West Coast Path and free camping.

Crossing the Atlantic, I enjoyed a couple of very good memoirs by African American women. Like millions around the world, I read Becoming, Michelle Obama’s well-written and interesting account of her life, from childhood to her years in the White House. I also appreciated A Burst of Light and Other Essays by poet Audre Lorde, first published in 1988. She writes about her struggles and activism as a Black lesbian woman, with connections all over the world. The book includes diaries she kept as she lived with breast cancer.

Closer to home, I read the memoirs of two remarkable people who now live in New Zealand. Green MP Golriz Ghahraman is still in her thirties, but she has had an eventful life. She and her parents fled Iran when she was aged nine and they claimed asylum in New Zealand. In Know Your Place she writes of her early childhood in Iran, settling to a new life here, her career as a human rights lawyer and politician, and her recent experience of adjusting to disability due to multiple sclerosis. This is a well-written book by a significant and boundary-breaking woman.

Like Ghahraman, journalist Behrouz Boochani is in his thirties, Kurdish and a refugee from Iran, but he fled his homeland later, in 2013, and had the great misfortune to encounter the barbarity of the Australian refugee detention system. No Friend but the Mountains is a very moving and disturbing book, in which he writes of his perilous journey from Indonesia by boat and imprisonment on Manus Island. Boochani is a deep thinker and philosopher and his writing is poetic; the book is in a mixture of poetry and prose. The tale of the book itself is extraordinary. He wrote it in prison, through messages sent to friends on his phone. Friend Omid Togifhian translated it from Persian to English (and wrote a longish introduction). No Friend but the Mountains won several major literary prizes in Australia, no doubt greatly annoying the government it criticised so heavily. It became his key to a new life, as he obtained a visa to attend a literary festival in New Zealand, where he was subsequently granted refugee status. He remains a strong advocate for his fellow detainees.

Novels

First, a word of warning – some of the links are to Wikipedia entries and may include plot spoilers!

I’ve read some cracking fiction this year. Four very different books topped my list. I loved Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winner, Girl, Woman, Other, an originally-styled tale of the lives of many black women, all linked in some way. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a wonderful imagining of the lives of Shakespeare’s wife and children; it’s a moving tale of love and of grief for a child. The Bees by Laline Paull has an unusual narrator – a bee. It can be interpreted as a fable about society and hierarchies, but is also just a compelling story about bees and their hives. A recent standout read was Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 sci-fi classic, The Dispossessed. It features two contrasting societies – one is anarchist and possessions are insignificant; the other capitalist. I was especially struck by some comments about the decline of Earth, which are thrown in at one point rather than featured throughout – they seem highly prophetic.

I don’t know that Juliet Marillier can be counted as a local writer, since she has lived in Australia for many years. Still, she grew up in Dunedin and she’s an Otago graduate! She is one of my favourites, writing wonderful sensitive historical fantasy. I loved The Harp of Kings, the first in her latest series, Warrior Bards. Another Dunedin writer I really like is Laurence Fearnley: I especially enjoy her descriptions of the natural world. Scented, which I read in 2020, isn’t my favourite of hers but I still liked it. It is unusual in being a novel that is very much about smell. Speaking of the natural world, another great read this year was Richard Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Overstory. It’s a story about trees and a group of people, all deeply developed, involved in protecting them.

I happened upon Canadian Ann-Marie MacDonald’s books this year, and read Fall on Your Knees, an extraordinary historical family saga set on Cape Breton Island. She is a wonderful writer, but a word of warning: this book includes child abuse (including sex abuse). After reading this and a couple of other very grim books, which shall remain nameless, I decided I needed to read more cheerful things in this stressful year! Crime fiction is one category I’ve gone off. I’ve never been a fan of violent movies, though I used to watch some of the innumerable TV crime series. But now I find it hard to stomach as a mode of entertainment, especially when it involves violence against women. Also, I served on a jury in a horrible case in 2020, and that experience made me pretty cynical about our justice system.

I asked on Twitter for good ‘uplit’ recommendations, and people kindly gave lots of suggestions. The ones I’ve read so far are very good. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (translated from Japanese) is a lovely tale of a woman and her son, caring for an aging mathematician whose memory lasts just 80 minutes due to a head injury. My friend Jason recommended Salley Vickers and I found The Librarian unputdownable. It’s the tale of a young children’s librarian and her influence in an English village in the 1950s, with wonderful characters. I love a good book about books, and I also like well-written child characters in adult novels – they are a big feature in this one. I also read The Boy Who Could See Death, a collection of Vickers’ short stories. They are interesting tales of people, some with a supernatural edge, but mostly about very human things.

Book podcasts are a good source of recommendations. There are a couple I’ve followed for ages, but it was in 2020 that I first encountered the brilliant Backlisted, which includes wonderful rambling and witty conversations about older books. I recommend especially the 2020 Christmas Day programme, about The Dark is Rising, a Susan Cooper book I read and loved in 2019, as part of my binge of 1960s and 70s children’s novels. The Backlisted podcast features novels of all genres, literary and popular, and it was thanks to it that I read the hugely enjoyable Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson, published in the 1930s. I vaguely recall reading some of her books way back when, but had forgotten how good they are. This is a charming and hilarious tale about a naïve woman who writes a book based on the residents of her English village. Published under a pseudonym, it becomes a bestseller and chaos ensues as the villagers try to identify the dastardly writer.

History

I only read one New Zealand history book in 2020, but it was a significant one: Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand by Brian Easton. It’s a long book – the distillation of a lifetime’s work as an economist – but happily very readable and low in jargon. Economic history has been rather neglected in this country, so it’s good to have this comprehensive study. More expert friends tell me that Easton’s inclusion of environmental aspects in this book is novel, but I guess I’m more radical, since it doesn’t go quite far enough for me! I was disappointed that, despite a disclaimer, it focuses on economic growth, with no consideration of newer theories like doughnut economics. I may be too harsh a critic on economics, though.

My favourite history read of the year was Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. Everything Solnit writes is good, and this 2000 book is, as ever, full of quotable bits. It covers a huge range of time and geography and philosophy about walking. I also liked Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which seemed appropriate reading for a plague year; Simon Garfield’s Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World, a nice piece of science and cultural history; and Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History, a great read about some of the more positive sides of humanity.

Society

Rounding off the list are some miscellaneous works of non-fiction that I liked. I’m certainly not the first to say that Imagining Decolonisation is a must-read for New Zealanders. It’s a multi-authored book, very readable, about the issues and practicalities of decolonisation. The Black Lives Matter movement moved me to read Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt. She is an American social scientist with expertise in racial bias, especially as it relates to the police, but this book is of broader relevance too – highly recommended. Finally, I was inspired by two books I read by Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook and The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World. Hopkins is the founder of the Transition Towns movement, encouraging grassroot groups who work to make communities more self-sufficient to increase resilience in the face of climate change and economic instability. If you are interested in local action these are a good read.

**************

Well, those are my best reads of 2020. A big thank you to all the writers, publishers and podcasters who provided me with sustenance in a difficult year!

Something good to read

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.

History

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!

Fiction favourites

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 ClayAt 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.

Two years of reading novels

004

Wondering what to read? I have a few recommendations! I’ve neglected this blog over the past two years, since I’ve been preoccupied with finishing my own book, which has just been published. There’s always time for reading, though! Indeed, I think it’s an essential part of the writing process, not to mention a fantastic way of relaxing. In 2017 and 2018 I read exactly 100 books – that may sound a lot, but it averages just one a week, and some of them were short (thanks, BWB Texts). Just under half of those books were novels. I’m not going to mention them all here – these were my favourites. A word of warning – some of the links I’ve included are to Wikipedia pages which may include plot spoilers.

Classic fiction

As ever, my fiction reading has covered a range of the old and the new from various genres. I enjoyed several classic novels. I read Emma (published 1815) for the umpteenth time, in honour of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. I also discovered, for the first time, ‘the Scottish Jane Austen’, Susan Ferrier. Scottish writer Val McDermid ran a campaign to revive the memory of this once popular author. Her 1818 novel Marriage, which I called up from library storage, is a family saga, long but interesting, with some great comic characters.

The death of Ursula Le Guin prompted me to read the entire Earthsea series. I read A wizard of Earthsea (1968) as a child, but I can’t recall reading the others previously – I wasn’t a big fan of science fiction or fantasy then, as I am now! I especially liked The tombs of Atuan (1971) and Tehanu (1990). Immersing myself in Le Guin’s imagined world over all five of the books was a great experience. The writing, characters and stories are all excellent, while, like all imagined worlds, Earthsea and its people prompt reflection on the state of our ‘real’ world. A striking feature of the series is the diversity of the central characters with respect to gender, ethnicity and abilities – undoubtedly that adds to its broad appeal.

Like many other people, I was prompted by the current state of our world to read some classic dystopian fiction – Nineteen eighty-four (1949) and Animal farm (1945) by George Orwell, and The handmaid’s tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. I first read The handmaid’s tale soon after it was published, so describing it as a classic makes me feel old, but I think it fits that category. It was chilling when I read it in the 1980s and has remained with me since; it was just as chilling when I read it in 2017. I haven’t seen the recent TV adaptation, but the power of the book’s imagery is clear in the way that the costume of the handmaids has since become an internet meme!

More recent fiction

In a previous post of book recommendations I noted that Life after life by Kate Atkinson was my favourite read of 2016. Last year I read the ‘companion’ to that, A god in ruins (2015). It is equally brilliant – I don’t want to include any spoilers, so I’ll just say that it’s a creative and compelling story about the long afterlife of war. Another creative and compelling novel about war, and other things besides, is The wish child (2016) by Catherine Chidgey. I’ve read Chidgey’s three previous novels and all are excellent. Their settings vary widely – this one is a tale of children living in wartime Germany.

Although there is no indication of it in the setting of The wish child, Chidgey is a New Zealander, and it’s been great to discover some other excellent writers from New Zealand over the past couple of years – from Dunedin, even! New to me was Laurence Fearnley. I read The hut builder (2010) and The quiet spectacular (2016) and loved her settings, characters and subtle humour – these are quiet books with lots of descriptions of the natural world. There’s something special about reading a book set in your own environment, and that’s one of the reasons I liked Billy bird (2016) by Emma Neale. It’s an imaginatively written novel about a family recovering from a trauma. A final recommendation in the ‘locals’ category is by transplanted Scot Liam McIlvanney. I don’t read much crime fiction these days, but make an exception when I know the author in person! The quaker (2018) is a beautifully written novel set in 1960s Glasgow, inspired by the unsolved Bible John case. I was privileged to attend the launch, where Liam read from the beginning of the book. I read another chapter on the bus home and was completely hooked, finishing it in a couple of days. The plot is interesting, with its fair share of twists, but it’s the little details and evocation of a time and place that makes it really special.

Tales of the imagination

A recent reading highlight was Station eleven (2014) by Emily St John Mandel. My friend André commented on Twitter that it was “Absolutely one of my very favourite books of all time. The funny part is how almost any description of it makes it sound kinda shit really.” I agree! If your taste runs to the post-apocalyptic, you should definitely read this one, set in a world where most people have died in a pandemic. It has all sorts of interesting threads running through it – travel, theatre, and religion being prominent. A different sort of imagined world is that evoked in The power (2016) by Naomi Alderman. It is a world where gender hierarchies are reversed after women gain new physical powers, and the consequent tensions are explosive. I found it disturbing, but it sparked lots of interesting ideas.

I’ve also read further books by two of my favourite creators of imagined worlds. Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller, and I found American gods (2001) fascinating – it’s based on the premise that old gods follow migrants from their old world to the new, and struggle to survive in their new environment, which is also influenced by new gods (such as the media). A related book I thoroughly recommend is Gaiman’s masterly retelling of old legends, Norse mythology (2017). Juliet Marillier writes a different sort of fantasy, set in an imagined past with elements of magic. She, too, is a master storyteller. Her characters often struggle with disabilities or past traumas; they are very empathetic tales. She also has a big heart for animals, which feature in most of her books. I know because I’ve read all of them! Over the past couple of years I enjoyed completing her Blackthorn and Grim series, which includes Dreamer’s pool (2014), Tower of thorns (2015) and Den of wolves (2016).

There is a little magic or fantasy or imagination – call it what you will – in two other powerful books I read last year – Lincoln in the bardo (2017) by George Saunders and The underground railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead. Lincoln in the bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize, is a wildly imaginative book set in a space between death and an afterlife, with many different narrators. It takes place in 1862 and has its basis in the true story of US President Abraham Lincoln’s great grief on the death of his son. The underground railroad is also set in 19th century America, where the underground railroad was a metaphor for the secret routes taken by slaves escaping from the southern states to the north. In Whitehead’s novel, the escape route becomes an actual railway in underground tunnels. This imaginative device mixes with the all too realistic history of slavery in a highly effective and moving novel.

Uplit

Sometimes, when life is tough, you don’t want to read a gloomy book. Of course, there is plenty of escapist fiction with a happy ending out there, and I’ve read a few romcoms of varying quality! But a friend introduced me to the concept of ‘uplit’, more literary stories designed to lift your mood ‘up’. The two she recommended were excellent. The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), by Rachel Joyce, is a moving, thoughtful and well written novel about a man who takes an unexpected walk. The trouble with goats and sheep (2016), by Joanna Cannon, is a study of a community in 1960s/70s England, partly from the perspective of a child. “Suspense, nostalgia, the making of outsiders” is how I summarised it after reading.

Storypast

I’ve found Twitter a good place for book recommendations, often alerting me to things I wouldn’t have read otherwise. I’ve discovered some interesting books through the #storypast hashtag, used by historians/historical fiction writers interested in creative ways of writing about the past. I haven’t joined in their Twitter reading group, largely because the dates or times didn’t suit me, but I have read some of the books they discussed. A highlight for me was Ulverton (1992) by Adam Thorpe. It’s a novel which explores a fictional English village in different periods, making good use of varied writing formats. There’s an interesting interview with Thorpe in the Guardian, published when Ulverton became a Vintage Classic in 2012. I must read some more of his ‘uncategorisable’ opus!

****

Happy 2019 everyone – I hope the year brings you lots of interesting reading. If I get the chance, I will write another post with my recommendations for some good non-fiction reads – the photograph provides clues to some of my favourites!

2016 – a year in reading

readingI 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.

Fiction

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 whiteStrange 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.

History

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.

Other non-fiction

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!