Five-star reads of 2022

4 books in a pile on a table. They are O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker; Orwell's Roses by Rebecca Solnit; Common Ground: Garden Histories of Aotearoa by Matt Morris; and New Zealand Nurses: Caring for our People 1880-1950 by Pamela Wood.

I read a lot of books in 2022! Looking at my reading app, StoryGraph, I see that I gave the top rating of 5 stars to 21 books. Others came close, but 21 seems enough to write about. They are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, mostly recent but sometimes not, and I highly recommend them all. Science fiction was my most-read genre, thanks to my project to read all the novels which have won the Hugo Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel. I’ve read 30 of the 71 books on that list so far and four of them made it onto this year’s favourite reads. Hopefully I might finish this interesting project in 2023 or 24!

Well, here’s the list of my 2022 favourites, with brief notes on each.

Science fiction and fantasy

James Bradley, Clade (2015). A gripping cli-fi (science fiction focussed on climate change) novel, set in a future Australia and England. Told from the perspective of various members of one family over a long period as they deal with the crises of a rapidly-changing world.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls (2003). This was the first book of Bujold’s that I read, but I have since read some of her science fiction as well. She is a great storyteller and her books are especially hard to put down. This is a top-notch fantasy, which gets extra points for putting flawed middle-aged people at its romantic centre!

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown (2015). This fantasy set in Regency England is a sparkling tribute/response to the witty romances of Georgette Heyer, but it is also much more than that. It features a multiracial cast of characters and the most powerful magician is a woman. It fits into a new genre Cho has described as ‘postcolonial fluff’!

Susannah Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). This is another novel set in Regency England with magic added, this time including scenes from the Napoleonic Wars. It’s very long, but not hard to read once you get into the story. It is also funny and subversive, with the senior magicians – elite white men – fumbling around while people of other ethnicities, genders and classes can see what is actually going on.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun (2021). A new book from Ishiguro is always a treat for me. This one has a fable-like feel and is told from the perspective of Klara, an ‘artificial friend’ who is the companion of a sick child. Raises all sorts of questions about AI, what makes us human, and how we interpret our world.

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky (2017). This is the third book of her Broken Earth trilogy, and I liked it the best as it resolves various plot lines and ends the dystopian story on a hopeful note. All three books won the Hugo – the first time that has happened for a series and a reflection of its brilliance. Jemisin’s writing style is strikingly original, as is the world she has built – it is very geologically unstable, so anyone with earthquake PTSD should probably avoid this series. It deals with themes of oppression and violence and prejudice and clashing cultures in a totally gripping plot.

Juliet Marillier, A Song of Flight (2021). A YA fantasy, third in the Warrior Bards series. I love Marillier’s books and have read them all. They have great stories and characters and there is something very sensitive in her writing. She writes wonderfully about animals and about disability. Bonus – she is from Dunedin (though she long-since decamped to Australia)!

Dan Simmons, Hyperion (1989). This is an extraordinary book and it blew me away really. As a former student of English literature, I loved all its literary allusions, which range from Keats to the Wizard of Oz, but I suspect you wouldn’t have to be well-read to enjoy this book. It’s set in a dystopian future, where a diverse set of pilgrims on a quest tell tales in Canterbury Tales fashion. All of the tales are surprising and gripping. Parts of this book were especially terrifying to someone like me who doesn’t read much horror fiction! I felt the lack of good female characters early in the book, but that improves later. The sequel is now high on my reading list.

General fiction

Elspeth Barker, O Caledonia (1991). This is, according to Ali Smith, “the best least-known novel of the twentieth century”. Now acclaimed as a classic of Scottish literature, it is a highly original and beautifully written tale, with a Gothic-style setting.

Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum (2005). A quiet masterpiece from the acclaimed Indigenous American writer. A book centred around an old painted drum, but essentially about family and relationships. Beautifully written in a lyrical style that you want to linger over.

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013). I don’t want to give any spoilers for this one, as it includes a massive twist! I picked it up in the local Lilliput library and knew nothing about it – the surprise was huge and I recommend reading it without knowing the main plot lines. An exciting and compelling read.

Clare Moleta, Unsheltered (2021). A remarkable debut novel by a Wellington writer who grew up in Australia. Maybe this should be in the SFF section, but Moleta herself has said the setting “has been described as futuristic, but I wrote it four years ago and it didn’t even feel like the future then”. It’s really climate fiction, set in a dystopian Australia destroyed by climate disasters, with a mother searching for her missing daughter. Really gripping.

Sue Orr, Loop Tracks (2021). A very good novel which particularly resonated with me as the central character is exactly my age and the settings – mostly in Wellington – are familiar. It is a story about family and relationships, moving from an unplanned pregnancy in 1978 through to the pandemic lockdown of 2020. It deals with some intense issues, including abortion and euthanasia, and is very alert to contemporary politics

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words (2020). This book is a real treat for anyone fascinated by words and their histories and meanings. It’s tale of a woman who grows up among the men working on the Oxford English Dictionary and starts her own secret project to collect the words of women.


Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021). Ghosh is a master of both fiction and non-fiction, and an important thinker. In this brilliant book he uses the history of the nutmeg trade as the centre of a convincing argument that the world order created by Western colonialism, with its exploitation of both people and the natural world, led us into our current planetary crises.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013). People often recommend this book and it has been on my reading list for years. I finally got to it this year and now I know why it is so popular! A wonderful piece of nature writing, weaving together Kimmerer’s own story and Indigenous knowledge together with her institutional training in botany.

Annette Lees, After Dark: Walking into the Nights of Aotearoa (2021). This is a lovely example of nature writing, organised around walks Lees takes in different locations and at different stages of the night. I learned a lot and also enjoyed the reading journey.

J.B. MacKinnon, The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves (2021). Only the most stubborn people can remain unaware that runaway consumerism is destroying our planet and hugely detrimental to society. This is a fascinating thought experiment – what would happen if we all stopped shopping? A surprising and very readable book.

Matt Morris, Common Ground: Garden Histories of Aotearoa (2020). This fabulous book is very much a people’s history of gardening, starting with early Māori gardening and moving through New Zealand history from there. The focus is not on elite or commercial gardens, but home and community gardening. It also has a strong ecological bent.

Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses (2021). Solnit is a fabulous writer and an interesting thinker, and I have enjoyed everything of hers that I’ve read. This somewhat eccentric book, based around the life of writer George Orwell and the garden he planted, is up to her usual high standard.

Pamela Wood, New Zealand Nurses: Caring for our People 1880-1950 (2022). Wood is a very good nursing academic, and also a very good writer. This is a scholarly but readable history, packed with interesting people and stories.

Happy reading everyone!


Reading the Hugo Award winners

I recently started a new project – my goal is to read all (or at least most of) the winners of the Hugo Award for best science fiction (SF) or fantasy novel! It will take quite some time, but I have no deadline.

It all started when I was learning about solarpunk. As Wikipedia conveniently explains, “solarpunk is a literary genre and art movement that envisions how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability, human impact on the environment, and addressing climate change and pollution”. It’s a relatively new term – you may be more familiar with steampunk, which imagines a present and future where steam has continued as the chief form of energy.

The concept of solarpunk strongly appeals to me and I’m keen to read books that fit this ethos. I’m a firm believer in speculative fiction as a powerful and useful tool for imagining various futures and inspiring us to take action now to choose the best alternatives. Sometimes, though, SF can be dystopian and depressing, and I’m not always in the mood for that! When I asked on the fediverse for recommendations of solarpunk writers, a contact suggested taking a look at the Hugo winners. They are by no means all solarpunk books, but the theory is that older SF may be less grim than more recent work.

The Hugo list

The Hugo Awards are given by the World Science Fiction Convention each year for the best work in SF and fantasy. There are various categories, but I’m sticking with my favourite format, the novel. When I first looked at the list of winners, I realised I’d already read some of the books and really liked them, so being a winner seemed a good recommendation for new authors I might like! That’s when the ambitious concept of reading all the winning books began. The awards began in 1953, but there have also been some ‘retro’ Hugos, awarded for books published in earlier years, or in some gaps in the 1950s, when the award was not yet annual. To date there are 70 Hugo winners, plus 8 retro-Hugo winners. That’s a lot of reading! Furthermore, some of the winners come partway through a series, and I’m one of those people who prefers to read a series from the beginning, so there will be additional books.

I’ve already read 9 of the 70 books, and in some cases I haven’t read the winner, but other books by the same author. I thought I’d write about those books and authors now, and later I’ll let you know what I thought of new things I read! I don’t expect to like all the books. I’m not a great fan of big space battles, or anything with lots of violence, and I suspect some of the early winners may be in that line. Also, some of the earlier writers had questionable behaviour, or philosophical beliefs that definitely don’t align with mine!

Please be warned that the links below to individual books are to Wikipedia and contain SPOILERS (I refuse to link to the evil company which is the world’s dominant bookseller).

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a two-time winner of the award, for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1970, and for The Dispossessed in 1975. She is perhaps the most revered writer on the list, being both popular and acclaimed by literary critics. Her works appear on university syllabuses to an extent not often seen with SF writers. It is also notable that she wrote in both SF and fantasy genres and was successful in both. I first encountered Le Guin’s writing as a child, with A Wizard of Earthsea. When Le Guin died in 2018, I was prompted to re-read the whole Earthsea fantasy series, and thoroughly enjoyed that. I was struck then by the diversity of her central characters with respect to gender, ethnicity and abilities, and that is an important feature of her SF writing as well. I’ve enjoyed and been very impressed by both of Le Guin’s Hugo-winning novels. The Dispossessed features two contrasting societies – one is anarchist and possessions are insignificant, the other capitalist. Wikipedia describes it as an “anarchist utopian science fiction novel”. SF and fantasy writers invent entire imagined societies, species, planets or futures. Philosophies and political systems are inevitably part of that – indeed, that is why I find these genres so intriguing! Some writers are more explicitly political than others, and Le Guin is one of those, with The Dispossessed the outstanding example. The Left Hand of Darkness is, like The Dispossessed, set in Le Guin’s Hainish universe, where contact is made between humans living on various planets. It famously centres on gender – one of the societies has become androgynous, and humans from elsewhere struggle to deal with these ungendered people.

Connie Willis

Connie Willis has won the Hugo three times: in 1993 for Doomsday Book, in 1999 for To Say Nothing of the Dog, and in 2011 for the two-volume work Blackout/All Clear. I first heard of Willis from a friend’s brother-in-law, an American astrophysicist and SF reader, who thought an historian would particularly enjoy her books – he was right! I mean, what historian wouldn’t want to travel back in time to do field work? That is the premise of the world Willis has created in all of these loosely-linked Hugo winners. In the mid-21st century, Oxford University has access to time travel and uses it to send historians to various eras for research. As with all good time travel fiction, there are various paradoxes and complications – in Willis’s imagined world time travelers are unable to change significant events (there’s no going back to kill Hitler). I’ve read and loved all of these books, along with some others by Willis. They have great plots and characters, but one of their most impressive features is the historical worlds they recreate. Doomsday Book is set during a medieval plague, while Blackout/All Clear are set in an embattled World War II England. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a comic novel where a time-travelling historian unexpectedly ends up in Victorian England – it’s a fond tribute to Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. I highly recommend all of these books, especially to historians – we seldom find our kind as central characters in fiction!

Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson won in 1994 for Green Mars and in 1997 for Blue Mars – together with Red Mars they make up his Mars trilogy. KSR – as I often see his name abbreviated – is a writer who, as far as I am aware, fits pretty well into the solarpunk category. He is deeply concerned about climate change, ecology and social justice, but the futures he writes explore solutions to our problems and are more utopian than some other SF. Like Le Guin, KSR is known for being on the left of politics. He is quite a new writer to me, and it was only this year that I read him for the first time with the Science in the Capital series (conveniently rewritten in an omnibus condensed version, Green Earth), which I liked very much. I look forward to getting into the Mars trilogy.

J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling won in 2001 for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in her Harry Potter series. What can I say? Like millions around the world I read and enjoyed this series, but since Rowling, a woman with huge cultural power, began speaking against the rights of trans people, I can no longer support her.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a two-time winner, for American Gods in 2002 and The Graveyard Book in 2009. Gaiman is a great fantasy storyteller and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books, though not yet The Graveyard Book, which is now on my reading list. I loved the premise behind American Gods – old gods follow migrants from their old world to their new, and struggle to survive in that new environment, which is also influenced by new gods (for example Media, the goddess of pop culture). As well as being a ripping adventure yarn, it is a thought-provoking book about religion and migration.

Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke won in 2005 for her historical fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I started reading this years ago, but abandoned it for reasons I can’t recall. Since then I’ve read her 2020 novel Piranesi, which I loved. It’s hard to describe – a beautiful, strange, slow, absorbing book unlike anything else I’ve read. A friend pointed out that not only do Susanna Clarke and I share a surname, but we also look alike! So there are various reasons for me to give Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell another go.

N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin was the first (and to date, only) writer to win for each of the three volumes of a trilogy independently – a very high accolade. The Fifth Season won in 2016, The Obelisk Gate in 2017, and The Stone Sky in 2018. Together they make up the Broken Earth series. (Coincidentally, a new Hugo Award category for best series was commenced in 2017). I’ve recently read the first two books, and I’m about to launch into The Stone Sky. Jemisin is a brilliant world-builder with a distinctive writing style and strong characters – it’s an absorbing and thought-provoking series. People’s intervention in the environment is a major theme, but so is the interaction between species (some with superhuman powers) and ethnicities, and the building of communities. Notably, Jemisin is the first black writer to win the award, although another African American woman writer I love, Octavia Butler, has won the other major SF/fantasy novel award, the Nebula, and has won in other categories of the Hugo Award.

A warning – the Broken Earth series is set in a very geologically-active world and that’s an important part of the plot. There are frequent earth tremors, along with major quakes and volcanic eruptions. As a resident of the ‘Shaky Isles’ I found this disturbing at times, and I suspect the series would be best avoided by anybody who has been traumatised by quakes or eruptions.

The rest of the list

The rest of the list now beckons! I don’t plan to read them in any particular order, but just as the mood takes me. Happily almost all of the books from the 1970s onwards are available in my local library, which clearly has an enlightened policy when it comes to SF and fantasy, so this won’t be an expensive project. I’ve already picked up a few of the others in cheap second-hand versions, as you’ll see from the photo. Do let me know if you have any particular favourites among the Hugo winners!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!