Best Books 2021

 

Our literary year began with confidencebooks published, festivals and book awards back in personand ended with Covid-related distribution delays, event postponements and reduced programmes. National Poetry Day happened online only for the second year in a row. For several months Auckland writers couldn’t attend live events elsewhere in the countryincluding Verb Wellington and a delayed Word Christchurchand a slew of books had lockdown launches, or no launch at all.

A number of events, like the National Māori Writers Hui, moved to November and then into 2022. Still, despite the reduced footprints and numbers of international writers at our festivals New Zealand audiences turned up, embracing long-distance live streaming of literary eventsincluding Kazuo Ishiguro at the Auckland Writers Festival. That festival had over 60,000 attendees, and the Ockham NZ Book Awards attracted 700 to its live event in the Aotea Centre, its largest-ever audience.

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Our festival audiences weren’t the only ones supporting local books and writers. In November, Booksellers NZ reported an increase in books sold, up 17 per cent from 2020 in year-to-date sales.

At the ANZL we continued to commission and publish in-depth book reviewswith shortened versions of many appearing in Canvas magazine in the Saturday New Zealand Herald—and host round tables, including the Ockham fiction finalists and a conversation on literary biography, memoir and letters in New Zealand. Recently we began publishing book charts for fiction and nonfiction every Monday, in partnership with the award-winning Time Out Bookstore.

For Christmas we canvassed regular contributors for their favourite books of the year, and spoke to both Time Out and McLeod’s Book Shop in Rotoroa about their best sellers. Jemma Morrison, manager of McLeod’s, compiled a list of their top-selling Māori titles in 2021, revealing that all but two of their top ten (for adult readers) are nonfiction. The two fiction titles are Auē by Becky Manawatu, winner of the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at last year’s Ockham NZ Book Awards, and psychological thriller Tell Me Lies by J. P. Pomare, another 2020 title that continues to win new fans.

 

                                                     

 

McLeod’s top Māori title of the year is Hinemoa Elder’s Aroha: Māori wisdom for a contented life (Penguin), published pre-Christmas last year and still selling around the country: it features on this week’s ANZL Time Out chart. Well-being, health, cosmology and matauranga Māori are the subjects of some of the other Māori top-sellers this year, including Matariki: The Star of the Year by Rangi Matamua (Huia 2017) and Living by the Moon: Te Maramataka a Te Whānau-ā-Apanui by the late Wiremu Tāwhai (Huia 2014). Two books by Ngahuia Murphy (published by He Puna Manawa) are both perennial sellers for McLeods: Te Awa Atua: Menstruation in the Pre-Colonial Maori World (2013) and the bilingual Waiwhero: The Red Waters—A Celebration of Womanhood (2014).

One of the most beautiful books in McLeod’s top ten is Hinemihi: Te Hokinga—The Return by Hamish Coney, with photography by Mark Adams, and contributions by Keri-Anne Wikitera, Lyonel Grant and Jim Schuster (Rim Books 2020). This is a celebration of the house Hinemihi o Te Ao Tawhito, carved by Tene Waitere and Wero Tāroi, and soon to return to her original owners hereTūhourangi and the wider Te Arawa iwiafter a century standing in the gardens of Clandon Park in Surrey.

The top ten also includes two language titles: Hona Black’s He Iti te Kupu: Maori Metaphors and Similes (Oratia 2021), with almost 500 sayings in te reo and English, and Scott Morrison’s ever-popular Māori Made Easy (Penguin 2015).

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Time Out has the same 2021 bestseller as McLeod’sHinemoa Elder’s Aroha (Penguin 2020)and its top ten is also dominated by nonfiction titles. At number two is the memoir sensation of the year, The Mirror Book, by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage 2021)more on that title below.

Other memoirs on the year’s top ten are This Pākehā Life: An Unsettled Memoir by Alison Jones (BWB 2020), a deserving nonfiction finalist in this year’s Ockham NZ Book Awards and reviewed here by Stephanie Johnson, and Michelle Langstone’s essay collection Times Like These (Allen & Unwin 2021), reviewed here by Angelique Kasmara. Kasmara also reviewed another top nonfiction seller for Time Out, the true-crime Missing Persons by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins 2021).

The final nonfiction title on their list is Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, by Lucy Mackintosh (BWB 2021), only published in November but selected for numerous best-of lists: it’s been Time Out’s top nonfiction seller since its publication.

 

                      

 

One poetry collectionTayi Tibble’s acclaimed second book, Rangikura (VUP 2021)makes the Time Out list. The three works of fiction on the year’s top ten were all finalists or winners at the Ockham NZ Book Awards, suggesting the increased impact of our annual national prizes: Bug Week by Airini Beatrais (VUP 2020); Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro 2019); and Catherine Chidgey’s Remote Sympathy (VUP 2020)reviewed here by Sally Blundell.

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Time Out’s top title for younger readers this year was Spark Hunter by Sonya Wilson (Cuba Press 2021), set in a magical Fiordland. At McLeod’s, top-selling Māori titles for young people this year included two illustrated titles, Kia Kaha by Stacey Morrison and Jeremy Sherlock (Puffin 2021)‘a collection of true stories about amazing Māori’and the stunning Atua: Māori Gods and Heroes by Gavin Bishop (Puffin 2021).

We asked our own regular contributors for their favourites, confining them to books published in 2021. One book appeared in so many ‘best’ lists we’ve singled it out as book of the year, in a category all its own. It’s Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book, reviewed here by Rachael King. Other ANZL contributors describe it as ‘honest, engaging and humble’; ‘explosive and delicate’; and ‘an utterly riveting account of how an author made (and remade) herself.’

 

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We asked Charlotte about the (massive) response she’s received from readers. She says: ‘Most readers say the book has made them think about their own families and the complexity of their own experiences. I’ve had lots of emails from psychologists, too. To me, the most superficial and irrelevant response is to call the book “literary gossip” and to wonder what in it is “true.” (It’s all true.) The readers who’ve got the point of it have understood that the themes are universal. As I said in the Frank Sargeson Memorial Lecture, “We could have been any family, in any country. My father could have been a poet published only in Icelandic, say. This is a book about the mind.

‘My family did have an unusual problem, that of compulsive fictionalising, and that was central and interesting to me, but it’s a book about trauma, memory, difficult relationships, love, personality disorders, and growing up in New Zealand. It’s not intended only as a book about personal experience. It’s about conformity and dissidence, autocracy and democracy. It’s about the family as a power structure, as a microcosm of a regime. It’s about politics in the age of Trump, and it’s about literature, and the way we fictionalise experience. I think if it was only a book about “the Steads” it would be entirely trivial. As I’ve said and will keep saying, It’s not a book about me me me, it’s really a book about all of us. 

 

                                            

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From memoir to a roman à clef: Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan (Penguin 2021) was one of our fiction picks of the year, about a ‘devoted but difficult marriage’, reviewed here by Stephanie Johnson. Another contributor notes: ‘For me the central question in this raw, visceral work is if love does indeed conquer all, is it worth the cost?’

Emma Neale’s The Pink Jumpsuit: Short Fictions, Tall Truths (Quentin Wilson 2021) was another favourite, described by one contributor as ‘a wicker hamper of pyrotechnics’ and ‘intensely engaged with what it means to be alive’. It was reviewed here by Josie Shapiro.

Honourable mentions to speculative thriller Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara (Cuba Press 2021), reviewed here by Tom Moody, and Sue Orr’s novel Loop Tracks (VUP 2021), reviewed here by Stephanie Johnson.

Our top poetry title this year was The Sea Walks into a Wall by Anne Kennedy (AUP 2021), recent recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement. A (rave) review by Sophie van Waardenberg will be published on this site after Christmas. David Eggleton notes that the world of the book ‘is both holy and fallen. These poems range widely, from Hawaii and Iowa, to Florence and London, to Māori land protestors standing in the rain at Ihumātao, and throughout the poet weaves a deft pattern of connections. She writes of floods, storms, and thunderous waves; and about the narratives of the moment, the human surplus that eludes legal tidiness and finality of judgement.’

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Our contributors also cited Sleeping with Stones by Serie Barford (Anahera Press, 2021), Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind, by Courtney Sina Meredith (Beatnik Press, 2021) and Vunimaqo and Me (Kava Bowl Media) by Daren Kamali. The first two were reviewed here by David Eggleton. One ANZL contributor urges everyone to ‘see Kamali perform livehe’s mesmerising.’ A special mention for Cold Hub Press of Lyttelton, champions of neglected authors, who published Rejoice Instead: Collected Poems by the late Peter Hooper, an environmentalist and avid  tramper.

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Aside from The Mirror Book, nonfiction was a crowded category for ANZL contributors, with enthusiastic endorsements for Vincent O’Malley’s Voices from the New Zealand Wars / He Reo nō ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa (BWB 2021): it ‘goes deep into the historical sources and reveals how the Māori-Pakeha conflicts of the 1840s–70s continue to shape us.’

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Two essay collections made multiple lists: John Summers’ The Commercial Hotel (VUP 2021) with its tales of ‘a small-town, twentieth century New Zealand rapidly receding in the rear vision mirror’; and the vivid, lyrical Small Bodies of Water (Allen & Unwin / Canongate 2021) by Nina Mingya Powles, exploring diasporic homes and identities via swimming, eating and travelling.

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Two titles from the Time Out list appeared on our own lists—Missing Persons by Steve Braunias and Lucy Mackintosh’s Shifting Grounds—and we were also impressed with Alexander McKinnon’s Come Back to Mona Vale (OUP 2021), an ‘intimate and sometimes horrifying history of a disputatious Christchurch dynasty’.

One anthology featured on our year’s-best list: A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa NZ, edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong (AUP 2021). This landmark collection of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction by 75 emerging writersfeaturing work by Angelique Kasmara as well as ANZL members Gregory Kan, Nina Mingya Powles and Chris Tsewas reviewed here by Saradha Koirala.

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Finally, some of our contributors made cases for some ‘overlooked’ books of the year. Ian Wedde lobbied for Bruce Connew’s photographic essay A Vocabulary (Vapour Momenta Books), including written work by Rangihiroa Panoho. ‘The photographs are of headstones and other types of hard memorial texts that are the material ghosts of colonialism and resistance to it in many forms.’ David Eggleton recommended Vaughan Rapatahana’s poetry collection ināianaei/now (Cyberwit), with its ‘playfight between te reo Māori and demotic Kiwi English in the backyard that sometimes turns into a serious scrap.’

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Josie Shapiro’s choice was first novel The Disinvent Movement by Susanna Gendall (VUP), with its ‘gorgeous prose, philosophical meanderings and a darkly funny underground protest movement.’ Angelique Kasmara also picked a first book, Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson and other very short stories by Jack Remiel Cottrell (Canterbury UP), reviewed here by Victor Rodger: ‘a volume this pithy, inventive, and funny should at least be shallow,’ says Kasmara, but Cottrell ‘dives deep, coming up with dark insights and genuinely poignant moments.’

 

                                                            

   

'My readers turn up...and I meet them as human beings, not sales statistics on a royalty statement.' Fleur Adcock

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