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Books: The Best Books of 2015 According to a Panel of 10 Experts. Our Fourth Expert – Peter Simpson

Auckland author Peter Simpson chooses six books by New Zealand authors, including one of the favourites to win the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards prize for best novel.

Last year as one of five judges of the final New Zealand Post Book Awards I read virtually every local book published. I can’t recall precisely how many there were, but more than 150 titles across all genres. I’ll never forget the day that seven cartons of books arrived at my front door – and that was just the first batch. It was an arduous task – the reading equivalent of running a marathon or two (or so I imagine). Probably no judge will ever have to endure this again; the new rules which come into play next year sensibly involve separate panels for each of the four categories – fiction, poetry, non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction.

This year, with relief, as reader I’ve simply suited myself. Perhaps in reaction, I’ve been reading old books and writers as much or more than new ones –  in fiction, for instance, Melville, Stendhal, Joyce, Charlotte Bronte, Forster, Beckett, Henry James, Marquez, some early Ian McEwen. Most of the new books I’ve read are local titles and I’ll confine these remarks to them.

It was a strong year for poetry with excellent new collections from such well-established performers as Dinah Hawken (Ocean and Stone, VUP), Peter Bland (Expecting Miracles, Steele Roberts), Kevin Ireland (Looking out to Sea, Steele Roberts), Gregory O’Brien (Whale Years, AUP) and Murray Edmond (Shaggy Magpie Songs, AUP). A couple of new-comers also produced good collections: John Dennison (Otherwise, AUP) and Kerry Hines (Young Country, AUP), which also includes superb nineteenth century photographs by William Williams.

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However, the poetry book I want to single out is A Place to Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie, edited by David Howard (University of Otago Press). In a brilliant act of literary resuscitation, Howard has brought together more than 200 poems, published and unpublished by Lonie, revealing him as important and unjustly neglected. English born, Lonie studied at Otago University in the early 1950s, and after about a decade in England and Australia returned to Dunedin in 1965. He studied Classics at Cambridge and became an accomplished medical historian. He lived in England again between 1978 and 1982 but returned to Dunedin after the sudden death of his second wife, Judith. It was this event which led to much of his best poetry in his last years – refined and timeless poems of love, grief and memory, many included in the small collections Courting Death (1984), The Entrance to Purgatory (1986), and Winter Walk at Morning, posthumously published in 1991. Lonie took his own life in 1988.

Here, as a small taste of his character and quality, is the ending of the title poem of his 1986 book:

But this is only the beginning

when suffering seems a new adventure, the past

a backdrop lending it dignity. Later you must unpack

pictures and broken ornaments, making them

the measure of your loss, and what it takes to forgive.

Here too the city will help, hill tree and tower

by sunlight or by starlight assembled into a setting

for something to take place in, a place to go on from.

As Bill Manhire says on the back jacket: ‘This book is going to be essential’.

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Martin Edmond’s The Dreaming Land (Bridget Williams Books) is more conventional in structure and style than his usual idiosyncratic mixture of history, autobiography and speculation; it is a relatively straight-forward memoir about growing up in small North Island towns – Ohakune, Greytown, Huntly and Upper Hutt –  places where his school-teacher parents moved to live and work. Edmond was born in 1952, the only boy in a family of six, and no more vivid and absorbing account of a New Zealand childhood in the fifties and sixties has been committed to print. His memory is extraordinary, and probably stems from the habit in childhood of minutely reconstructing every detail of the garden of his home in Ohakune before going to sleep each night. He is equally good about the yearnings and frustrations of being a teenager. It is a beautifully written book.

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Writing a biography of a living person, whether ‘authorised’ or not is always a tricky proposition, but Rachel Barrowman has avoided most of the pit-falls in her impressive, 546- page Maurice Gee: Life and Work (Victoria University Press). She was greatly aided by the character of the man – his decency, honesty and intelligence, his willingness to share the details of his life however embarrassing they might be. Readers of Gee’s fiction will know that certain preoccupations recur over and over, most of which can be traced back to events in his Henderson boyhood, especially the tidal creek, river of life and death. Gee’s remarkable family – magisterially reconstructed in his greatest work, the Plumb trilogy – provides much interest in the early chapters. At a certain point, though, the professional full-time writer takes over and the life becomes relatively hum-drum. It was sensible, therefore, to devote much of the latter part of the book to summary and analysis of his novels and stories; that’s where his real life happened. There are occasional longueurs, especially if (like me) you’re not so much interested in the juvenile fiction, but on the whole it’s an admirable book.

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While I enjoyed Patricia Grace’s Chappy (Penguin) and Ian Wedde’s Trifecta (Victoria University Press), the most compelling new novel of the year was, for me, Greg McGee’s The Antipodeans (Upstart Press)  Though not especially long – at least not by the standards of those Booker-winning behemoths, The Luminaries or A Short History of Seven Killings – it packs a tremendous amount into its 350 pages, encompassing two countries, New Zealand and Italy, and three generations spanning more than half a century, in an intricate story of war, family, soldiering, friendship, love, rugby, inter-generational conflict and much more. As Chris Hampson said when he launched it: ‘The book has heft. And it does – true heft – it deals with substance, weight, history, loss and life.’ What started out a decade ago as a film script has evolved into a novel of convincing subtlety and complexity. Already, I feel like reading it again.

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Gregory O’Brien’s series of books about the visual arts for young readers is delightful and the latest, See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious (Auckland University Press) is no exception. Although intended largely for younger readers, I can’t think of a better introduction to the subject for readers of any age. The writing is lively, un-pompous and often amusing; the images are invariably fresh, unhackneyed and visually interesting. All the traditional categories of photography are covered: landscape, street scenes, documentary, people pictures, contrived photographs (as in Boyd Webb & co.), but he avoids any dutiful text-book feeling. I’m amazed at how many important (and some not so important) photographers are represented, ranging from early photographers such as Leslie Adkin, Thelma Kent  and John Pascoe, to very recent practitioners such as Darren Glass, Neil Pardington, Ben Cauchi,  Jae Hoon Lee and Yvonne Todd. In between come the well-known names of the last 40 years, including Westra, Friedlander, Schoon, Peryer, Aberhart, Foster, Black, Pardington, Barrar, Connew, and many more. The book is also nicely up-to-date with its references to phone cameras, selfies, Facebook, Instagram and other features of the contemporary scene.

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As I write, the retrospective exhibition of Paul Hartigan’s career is showing at the Gus Fisher Gallery. It’s a terrific show, as is Don Abbott’s book, Vivid: The Paul Hartigan Story (RF Books) which accompanies it. The book is not a catalogue; it covers much more work than is included in the exhibition. For instance there is extensive treatment of Hartigan’s large public neon works such as Whipping the Wind on Lambton Quay in Wellington or Colony at the University of Auckland. The book originated in a Master’s thesis, but it doesn’t read like that. The writing is vigorous and lively and the reproductions are outstanding. Of course Hartigan’s work with its origins in pop art, its graphic clarity and its brilliant colour lends itself superbly well to reproduction. As the artist wrote in my copy at the launch: ‘Light & paint!’

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