Writers’ Picks: Best NZ Books for Christmas
This year the ANZL is challenging readers in New Zealand to make – at least – one of their gifts a book by a New Zealand writer, published by a New Zealand publisher, and bought from a New Zealand book shop. This way we can all support our local writers, shops and publishing industry, plus give excellent books as presents. (Promote the cause on Twitter at #NZChristmasBookChallenge).
We asked some ANZL Fellows and Members what new local books they plan to buy this Christmas for friends, family – or themselves, to read over the summer holidays.
I am going to buy, for myself to read over Christmas, Renée’s memoir, These Two Hands: A Memoir (Mākaro Press). I expect it to be down-to-earth, sharp, honest, sad, funny, well-written and a bit wacky.
One of my friends has long been drawn to the elusive, wry voice of Bill Manhire’s crafted poems, turns of phrase that slip in beside you and catch you unawares, so I would give her his new collection, Some Things to Place in a Coffin (VUP). I’d also give her Vanishing Points (AUP), Michele Leggott’s dense, lyrical poems exploring art, history and family history.
To my son’s father, politically engaged and sometime writer of political poems, I’d give Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 Political Poems, edited by Philip Temple and Emma Neale (OUP), a diverse anthology of new and old poems by New Zealand writers covering the broad categories of political, rights, environment and conflict both at home and overseas.
To a vital and curious young woman, I would give Nina Powles’ debut full poetry collection, Luminescent (Seraph). And to a new, loving mother, I would give Ordinary Time (VUP), Anna Livesey’s intimate poems about mothering her newborn and toddler, reflections on struggling to be a particular kind of independent achieving woman, poems about quiet grief and slow, uncertain maturing.
This year I’m buying several copies of the Annual (Annual Ink/Potton and Burton), edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris, for overseas friends with children. I’m also buying a couple of copies of Write to the Centre: Navigating Life with Gluestick and Words by Helen Lehndorf (Haunui Press). This is a book that just keeps giving, and I often give it with a nice journal and pens. I’m also giving Nina Powles’ magnificent Luminescent (Seraph), because it’s a beautiful object and also includes great poems.
I’m buying three New Zealand novels as presents this Christmas. Decline and Fall on Savage Street by Fiona Farrell (Penguin) is a fictional exploration of the history of Christchurch through the lens of a single house and a hundred years of its in habitants. Beautifully observed, keenly intelligent and an object lesson in how to use historical research to present character.
Through the Lonesome Dark by Paddy Richardson (Upstart) is one for fans of more popular fiction. What it’s like to be buried alive and survive – figuratively for a young woman in Blackball and literally for a soldier from the New Zealand Tunnelling Company on the Western Front. Good characterisation, an evocative style and, again, parsimonious use of historical research to support a good story.
Billy Bird by Emma Neale (Vintage) offers subtle insight into a family in crisis. Neale tackles the problem of grief and the psychological drama of a ‘difficult’ child with a poet’s sensibility and compassionate intelligence. Poignant, lyrical and, often, down-right funny.
I’d choose A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington by Redmer Yska (OUP). This wonderful book is the writer’s exploration of the Karori suburb of Wellington, where Mansfield spent much of her childhood – and so did he. Part dreamlike memoir, it is also relentless in its search for answers about the real Wellington of Mansfield’s time, shattering our previous perceptions of her early life. It’s an exquisite production.
I’ve just started Mandy Hager’s Heloise (Penguin) and so far it’s just what I ask of an historical novel. I’ve already bought it as a present for a family member. I bought Elizabeth Smither’s collection Night Horse (AUP) in August and gave it to the Australian poet Judith Beveridge.
I’d suggest Mots D’Amour / Tender Words by Isabelle Boulliat with illustrations by Sophie Brannigan (Editions Petit Loup). It’s a clever and pretty little book produced by two bilingual mothers. I found it at Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop in Auckland and bought it for myself.
Decline and Fall on Savage Street by Fiona Farrell (Vintage) is a novel centred around a villa on the edge of a river in Christchurch, a companion to the non-fiction The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: 100 Ways to Read a City (Penguin 2015). The novel begins in 1906 with the development of the site and ends in 2012 after the earthquakes and explores the varied lives of the many people who live there, from up-and-coming public servants, soldiers and hippies to the latest residents, a middle-class family. An eel living in the river acts as a chorus. There’s not a misplaced or excessive word. I loved the fluidity of the point of view but always knew whose head I was in. As well as being emotionally rich in characterisation, it’s an important novel, revealing the fragility of all our lives.
Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 Political Poems, edited by Philip Temple and Emma Neale (OUP), is this year’s outstanding poetry anthology, beautifully presented in hardcover and illustrated by Nigel Brown. Thoughtful, provocative and a perfect present.
Casting Off: A Memoir by Elspeth Sandys (OUP) takes up from her first volume of memoirs, What Lies Beneath. It’s an entertaining account of Sandys setting off for England with her first husband, and is immersed in theatre, politics and writing.
The Ski Flier by Maria McMillan (VUP) is full of thoughtful, surprising, reflective poems. In particular I’d want to gift this book for one potently eerie, deeply felt, nail-bitingly tense narrative poem, ‘Only the things that can survive’, which I think is worth the price of the whole collection on its own. This poem is like a distilled novel, so it has the intensity of a quick shot of whisky: strong, lingering, transformative.
I see that Creative NZ has given Gareth Farr a grant to compose an Ed Hillary Symphony to be performed on the occasion of what would have been Hillary’s 100th birthday in July 2019. It seems appropriate, therefore, to recommend that all mountaineers, outdoorsies, Helen Clark and those interested in 20th century (male) social history should be given Michael Gill’s Edmund Hillary: A Biography (Potton and Burton). It has its imbalances and lacunae but presents, for the first time, Ed Hillary as a rounded human being and not just the hero on the five-dollar note or as lead in the legend he nurtured with the aid of Tom Scott.
The fiction part of my brain has been submerged by Shadboltiana as I plough on with my big biography but am looking forward to being presented with Fiona Farrell’s Decline & Fall on Savage Street (shamefully omitted from the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards longlist) and, in the memoir field, Elspeth Sandys’s Casting Off and Diana Wichtel’s memoir Driving to Treblinka (Awa Press).
I’m excited to get the novel Baby by Annaleese Jochems (VUP). The Keely O’Shannessy cover is pretty and arch and Pip Adam’s launch speech suggests it’s right up my alley: it ‘fools you into thinking this is a conventional page-turner by operating on your pleasure centres at the same time as your pain.’
I’m aiming to get Aotearoa by Gavin Bishop (Penguin) into all the homes of my grandchildren and anyone else I can think of. It’s beautifully illustrated and a wonderful survey of New Zealand history for children (and adults). Not only is it informative, kids love it ( it’s in the library of the school where I teach creative writing and they are full of praise).
Other books I’m buying as presents include Fiona Farrell’s Decline and Fall on Savage Street, a beautifully written and memorable book about Christchurch before and after the earthquake. The Yield by Sue Wootton (OUP) is a collection of poems that are intelligent, perceptive, sensitive, sometimes funny and sometimes grippingly sad and confronting.
Ann Salmond’s Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds (AUP) is very readable, very informative and another book I think every New Zealand household should have.
I love Tom Scott’s dry, wonderful humour. I want Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir (Allen & Unwin) for myself but I’ll give it to my husband so I can read it as well and savour it together over the summer.
I’ll be buying Aotearoa by Gavin Bishop for my two-year-old daughter (and secretly for me) this Christmas. I’m looking forward to reading about our history with Alice, and I love the movement and energy of Gavin’s illustrations – the unashamed busyness of them, the way it’s possible to find something new every time you open the cover.
The Ones Who Kept Quiet by David Howard (OUP). As I’m on my way out right now to buy this Ockham-longlisted book of poetry, it’s a good time to recommend David Howard’s work. He’s a national treasure in the poetry world: intelligent, deeply well-read and a man of strong and considered opinions. You won’t find any easy confessionalism his work, but there will be people, characters real and imagined from our history and that of other realms. In his time as Canterbury as Writer-in-Residence in 2016, I grew to admire even more his work ethic and his critical acumen. You can’t go wrong here.
I suggest Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither (AUP). Smither’s poems are quirky, flavoursome, full of sly humour, deft and clever. They are full of people she knows and their animals, observed with a sharp and not invariably compassionate eye, but in ways that makes them glow with weird life.
I recommend These Two Hands: A Memoir by Renée, a multi-talented novelist and playwright, recent winner of the Downstage award for making a significant artistic contribution to theatre in New Zealand. This is an important memoir of a most interesting woman, born just before the Napier earthquake. A working class girl, a marching girl, a girl who left school at the age of 12. I’m a child of the 50’s and I so related to this memoir. Renée writes with great candour about what it is to love and leave, and then to love and be left. I love the social history that interweaves the patches, as she calls them. This is an important, female, feminist, lesbian, Māori story. Buy this book, for your Mum, your Aunt, your sister, or your daughter and all the old 70’s feminists in your life.
If you need stocking fillers this Christmas, what better than the new international literary magazine Geometry published in New Zealand? A sumptuous read, showcasing both local and international poetry, prose and art. Perfect summer reading.
Decline and Fall on Savage Street by Fiona Farrell is the story of one house over more than a century, from 1906 to 2012. I assumed the house itself would be the main character but it’s a narrative vehicle for the series of people who live in it. In each of the reader’s brief encounters, new characters are instantly made familiar by their individual preoccupations, sometimes mundane, sometimes social and political, local and global. My very picky reading-self was captured to the last page. Excellence. None better this publishing year.
I’ve written about some of my #NZChristmasBookChallenge choices for the NZ Herald, but forgot to mention Maui and Other Māori Legends: Eight Classic Tales of Aotearoa, written and illustrated by the late Peter Gossage (Penguin). This is a handsome hardback collection of many of the classic stories – bold and graphic in Peter’s talented hands – that he brought to life for generations of New Zealanders. I bought this for my little cousins in the UK. And I got a Pee Wee the Lonely Kiwi title (Flying Books) for a small person in the US, because he didn’t know the kiwi is a bird.
'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell