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Drawing of a cool little mascot dude popping out of a book giving the peace sign; background is a huge number three, white on orange
(Illustration and design: Toby Morris)

BooksSeptember 1, 2021

The Spinoff Book Report #3

Drawing of a cool little mascot dude popping out of a book giving the peace sign; background is a huge number three, white on orange
(Illustration and design: Toby Morris)

Books editor Catherine Woulfe introduces a new tranche of books to love. 

Welcome to the third edition of the Spinoff Book Report, and welcome back to being able to buy books! Yahoo! 

Yes, even you Auckland and Northland – although you’re still living in a level four world you can order from through the looking glass, say from a little store called Unity Books in Wellington, and they’ll send your pretties to you post-haste. (To be clear: you can also order from Unity’s Auckland store but they won’t be processing orders until level three. Godspeed, bookstores of Auckland.)

As ever, writers and publishers got thoroughly dicked over by this lockdown. Some releases were rescheduled but other books launched into the void, dangling hopeful little “you can pre-order here” links, shrieking silently all the way down. This Book Report is dedicated to them. Some are on this list, and if they take your fancy, you know what to do: grab them by the pre-order link. Just a note though, some books that are meant to be in stores are not there yet, and worst-case scenario they might be stuck in warehouses in Auckland. I promise you any book on this list is absolutely worth the wait. Get in touch with Unity Wellington if you need something urgently and would appreciate a fix on timing. 

A refresher re Book Report selection criteria: I only pick books I really really like. As an indication of the tippy-top nature of this list, its creme de la creminess, I’ve just had a big purge of the books on my desk and winnowed the pile down to 74, and from those, I’m writing about six here today. Off we go.

Dad Man Walking: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Fatherhood, by Toby Morris (Penguin)

Petition to postpone Father’s Day until such time as the courier fairies can deliver this little book of drawings. Dad Man Walking is the best and only gift for your dad and every dad. In all seriousness, if you can’t bag a copy for Father’s Day – it’s this Sunday – make sure you get one for Christmas. 

Toby is the creative director at The Spinoff, a giant of pandemic science communication and one of the kindest people I know. Kindness just radiates off him, and off every page of this bright-orange book.

There’s no binding narrative here except “dadding”. Neither is it autobiographical: Toby interviewed more than a dozen other dads, and their diverse stories and one-liners and family legends are all spliced in alongside scenes from his own home. “Toby gets it,” writes Clarke Gayford in a cute little foreword. “I feel completely seen.”

“Classic Dads” are sprinkled throughout and they are absolutely golden – my favourite is Toby’s father-in-law, who taught his baby to crawl faster by putting enormous crays on the lawn behind her. There are pages of words made up by kids (“glue tack”, “soil milk”) and examples of “kid logic”, and “sacred Dad objects”. One whole page is just Toby, knackered, saying “where are your shoes?” He gets it.

Pre-order from Auckland, here or from Wellington, here

Bright orange comic cover of Dad Man Walking; beautiful black/ yellow/ blue cover of Atua
Two extremely great books, both launched into the lockdown void (Images: Supplied)

Atua: Māori Gods and Heroes, by Gavin Bishop (Picture Puffin)

A masterwork. A big beautiful hardback masterwork. My boy grabbed it the moment it arrived and gasped, “Is this for kids?” 

It is, but it’s also for adults, and it’ll make them gasp too. 

The format is similar to Bishop’s recent picture books Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story and Wildlife of Aotearoa, both terrific, both involving immense amounts of research, illustration and writing, but there is an extra layer of magic to Atua. Here Bishop is working with stories, and with whakapapa, and he is weaving meaning. I think it is the best work he has ever done, and that Atua is about to displace Peter Gossage as the go-to for Māori legends. 

Pre-order from Auckland here, or from Wellington here

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr (4th Estate)

Jo McColl of Unity Books in Auckland is picking this one to beat Sally Rooney in the Christmas charts. I was sceptical, then I read it – and yes, absolutely, if there is justice in the world then Rooney’s about to get gazumped. 

Like Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer-winner All the Light We Cannot See, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a huge novel. Six hundred and twenty-two glorious pages, nearly 800g, five days of reading so good it picked me up and whooshed me away. It is one long story, the epic life story of a book, but the bits we zoom in on take place in 1400s Constantinople, Idaho in 2020, and some time in the perilous future. I loved every part of it, fervently. 

My heart broke again and again. When a newborn baby is torn from a mother. When a pair of oxen collapse, worn out on the path to war. When a big sister dies of mercury poisoning, when a father sacrifices himself but saves his daughter, when a tremendous betrayal comes to light, and most of all when a patch of forest is cleared, and with it a great grey owl. 

But into all the breaking, Doerr breathes hope, and I hate the word “uplifting” but really there’s no other word for it – the reading of this book lifted me up, left me more hopeful, more peaceful. It’s been weeks now and that feeling has lingered. It is exactly the book I needed. Due at the end of September. (Another big book approaching at speed, which I am very excited about: Bewilderment, by Richard Powers, the man who had an epiphany under a giant redwood and wrote The Overstory, and won the 2019 Pulitzer for it.)

Covers of two books, one with a beautiful blue mirror on white background; one red with a yellow code tapped out under each word
These two are coming your way soon, soooon (Images: Supplied)

She’s a Killer, by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press)

This one’s not out til early October but let me play hype vanguard: it’s awesome. 

The story is set in New Zealand except it’s a more fucked version of New Zealand than we have now. There’s not enough water so there are daily allowances. Unemployment is soaring. So is inequality. Coffee’s at $11 a cup; wheat and potato crops have failed; a bottle of beer costs $60. Good luck out there. 

The protagonist, a woman in her 30s, is clever and blisteringly self-centred and odd, as you would be. She is one IQ point off being a genius and also quite possibly a sociopath. But that’s far from the centre of the book – I think the message here is more that humanity as a whole is pretty sociopathic. 

The plot involves “wealthugees” – the elite who can afford to flee their own ruined countries – and eco-terrorism, and a mysterious teenager who comes to live with the protagonist for a bit. The whole book has a feeling of edges and fractures and knife-edges, precariousness, and how close we are to it all. And also, how when it comes it will feel so normal

Things I Learned At Art School, by Megan Dunn (Penguin)

This new essay collection sports an array of amazing blurbs, possibly the best I’ve come across. 

Eg, “I think Megan Dunn is a major writer waiting to happen” – Bill Manhire. “Megan Dunn is the perfect antidote to the literary sad-girl industrial complex. She has the best deadpan of the southern hemisphere. Wickedly funny and frequently disconcerting, these odd, savage gems have gravy for days” – Hera Lindsay Bird. 

By contrast I find it very hard to explain why I loved this book, except to say that it’s wonderful to watch another person write the shit out of their own story. 

Dunn does learn things at art school but mostly, like the rest of us, she learns by muddling along and making friends, and from her mum. She drops biting little anecdote after biting little anecdote and it’s all wry, and evocative, and knowing. And funny. I enjoyed learning things about art and art school and Daryl Hannah and what it’s like being a receptionist at a strip club. 

The Spinoff published an excerpt the other day, in which Dunn recalls finding The Valley of the Horses in the high school library. We’ve also published Art in the waiting room, the waiting room being an oncology ward at Auckland Hospital. 

Pre-order from Auckland here, or from Wellington here.

One bright orange book cover featuring a giant pencil and a doe-eyed girl; one blue book cover with the most beautiful illustration of kōwhai flowers
Essay collections, both exceptional (Images: Supplied)

Small Bodies of Water, by Nina Mingya Powles (Canongate)

Frankly I’ve resented every second I’ve spent writing this book report because I’m two essays into Small Bodies of Water and desperate to get back to it. A full review is forthcoming, it’s out later this month, but let me just say for now: astonishing. A book that absolutely swims with colours and texture, with smarts, and with miraculously gorgeous paragraphs like this one:

Wind shakes the flower clusters of the kōwhai in my parents’ garden by the sea. Fallen petals scatter in the grass next to the lemon tree, where lemons tremble and drop, creating a carpet in varying shades of yellow and gold. The smell and the colour of this corner of the garden is overwhelming. 

Stores are standing by for stock.

See you in six weeks or so with another bunch of books. In the meantime, top of my reading pile are Butcherbird, by Cassie Hart, and Sweat and Salt Water: Selected Works, by Teresia Kieuea Teaiwa.

Keep going!