Absolute fact: These are the 20 best non-fiction books of 2018

All week this week we present the 20 best books of the year. Today: the 20 best books of non-fiction.

Previously:

The 20 best kids books of 2018

The 20 best poetry books of 2018

Māori Made Easy: For everyday learners of the Māori language by Scotty Morrison (Penguin, $38)

Oh just give this guy a knighthood now, one of those ones with bells on, in recognition of his incredible services for introducing te reo into New Zealand homes via this easy instruction manual. Want to start learning the language? Begin here.

Boys Will Be Boys: Power, patriarchy and the toxic bonds of mateship  by Clementine Ford (Allen & Unwin, $37)

Alex Casey, The Spinoff Review of Books: “Where her first book Fight Like a Girl read like a feminist manifesto and a call to arms for women everywhere, Boy Will Be Boys shifts the spotlight to examine how the patriarchy and gender roles affect men as well as everyone else on this godforsaken planet. Tackling something as vast as the patriarchy is a mammoth task, so Ford takes what I call ‘the Michele A’Court approach’ and eats the elephant with a teaspoon, breaking it down into essays ranging from the ‘not all men’ movement to the representation of men and women in popular culture.”

Karori Confidential by Leah McFall (Luncheon Sausage Books, $25)

Witty, luminous collection by the Sunday magazine columnist. So many zingers! Karori is like Gloriavale without the aprons.” And: “I was about to have a baby but what I deep-down probably wanted was a dog.” Also: “Your married self will be a lot like your unmarried self, except now you have cake forks.”

Ko Taranaki te Maunga: My mountain is Taranaki by Rachel Buchanan (Bridget Williams, $15)

A whakapapa-memoir which uncovers fresh layers of the old and emblematic story of Parihaka being violently and lengthily smashed by the colony, and tells a moving and elegant tale of Buchanan’s findings on her family and Parihaka. A tiny wee book, but it delivers like an 800-pager.

Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips (FSG, $45)

A bit like David Farrier’s dark tourist, but less…dark. Like, one of these essays is about a Walmart parking lot. At the start he has to learn to fly a bush airplane (with a cockpit “the size of a coffin”; he reckons a desk fan could blow the thing off course) to follow the course of the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska. The writing is terrific and he’s also ridiculously funny. Some liken him to John Jeremiah Sullivan and even David Foster Wallace. Yeah, maybe; easier just to curl up with some astonishingly good essays about someone putting himself in odd places.

Calypso by David Sedaris (LittleBrown, $35)

A brilliant collection by America’s finest wit. Peter Wells, in his forthcoming review at The Spinoff: “Is the book funny? Oh yes, you can rely on the usual explosive gulps at his sheer outrageousness. One example is a small tumour he has cut off in macabre circumstances by someone he met at a book reading. He feeds the remains of the tumour to a turtle he’s very fond of – one with a deformed head. This is the essence of Sedaris. He takes you on a trip, it’s beautifully detailed, its slightly unbelievable as in all tall stories, maybe even a little macabre, but it also has a baseline of human truth.”

Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury Press, $65)

The best cookbook of 2018. Linda Burgess, in her forthcoming review at The Spinoff: “His recipes are enchanting… They add gravitas to your kitchen by looking so stunning, as if drooling over the photos will make you be a really good cook. Your cholesterol level halves just by picking up one of his books. He assembles fabulous fresh ingredients, and he generously implies that if you try even just a little bit harder, you can cook like this.”

My Life, My Fight by Steven Adams with Madeleine Chapman (Penguin Random House, $40)

The best sports book of 2018. Spinoff prodigy Madeleine Chapman – aged 24 FFS! – skillfully and wittily goes about setting out the life story of the highest-paid New Zealand athlete of all times, from his childhood and lost teenage years in Rotorua, discovering purpose and basketball in Wellington, and then staying on top in the stratosphere of the NBA. It’s got everything plus jokes.

Theo Schoon: A biography by Damien Skinner (Massey University Press, $59) 

The best picture book of 2018. That’s on account of the fact it has lots and lots and pictures of the fantastical artworks created by Theo Schoon, whose paintings and carvings (his preferred media: gourds, which he grew in his garden) were among the greatest pieces of art made in New Zealand in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Skinner’s study reveals someone who was really a complete asshole – anti-Semitic, predatory – as well as a pioneering visionary who recognised (and exploited) the beauty in Māori artforms when no one else was looking.

Walls: A History of Civilisation in Blood and Brick by David Frye (Faber, $45)

Build a wall! Build a wall! Frye (a teacher of ancient and medieval history) focusses on the big picture history of civilisation by leaping dextrously across 4000 years, mulling over the reasons why walls exist and will continue to exist, how their original intention often didn’t work favourably long term, what walls can and can’t do, their contribution to civilisation (or not), and the psychological impact of 21st-century walls on both migrants and refugees.

Patterson: Houses of Aotearoa by Andrew Patterson (Thames & Hudson, $95)

Aspirational architecture for people with big paddocks and pockets. And also for people without those things, who might want to lift an idea or two for their lean-to extension. And for general aesthetes. Patterson is brilliant and daring and heavily imaginative, and the photographic spreads (mainly by Simon Devitt) are a notch up on all the others, too.

Hard Frost: Structures of feeling in New Zealand literature, 1908-1945 by John Newton (Victoria University Press, $40)

Just when it seemed no one was writing big, thrilling surveys of New Zealand literature anymore, enter John Newton, with the first of a major three-volume project – and brings new understandings, new discoveries. It got a knock-out review by Hugh Roberts in New Zealand Books. The opening sentence rang a loud bell: “If there is a better book on New Zealand literature than John Newton’s Hard Frost, I have not read it.” The second sentence bonged it even louder: “Rarely, indeed, have I read a work of literary history in any field of its calibre.”

To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine (Faber, $45)

Albertine was best known for her 1970s work with all-female post-punk trailblazers The Slits – until her first memoir Clothes, Music, Boys, which established her as an astonishingly good writer. To Throw Away Unopened is a kind of sequel. Albertine, now in her 60s, looks back at the rage of being a woman smashing through the patriarchy. Coming through divorce, 13 operations, a miscarriage, 11 IVF attempts, cancer and extremely difficult family dynamics, she holds nothing back in her storytelling as she deals with her brutal childhood, vicious sibling rivalry, and how all of her experiences shaped her into an inspirational and independent woman.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison (Granta, $45)

A very beautiful, brainy, relentlessly self-interrogating memoir about addiction and “the recovery narrative”. Jamison tells the story of her own addiction as well as various writers and artists, including the man behind AA’s twelve steps, Bill Wilson. She somehow shows that a story that isn’t necessarily ‘unique’ – how many recovery narratives are there? – still has value.

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna (Text, $40)

memoir in two parts from the inscrutable genius of art film. McKenna, a journalist, provides the facts and sources the mostly adulatory quotes from Lynch’s collaborators. In alternate chapters, Lynch offers his own, more mysterious and compelling perspective on his work and process. Sample quote: “The Red Room is an important part of Fire Walk with Me, and I love the Red Room. First of all, it has curtains, and I love curtains. Are you kidding me?”

Sam Hunt: Off the Road by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins, $50)

The sequel to Hogg’s gonzo poetry-tour classic Angel Gear finds Hunt with his feet up in remote Paparoa, with no intention of going anywhere. So Hogg drives north for long, searching, funny and sometimes wasted conversations. There is a lot of drinking (beer for Hogg, wine for Hunt), a lot of reciting and a mountain of Northland weed to get through, but there is also a raw, honest melancholy from New Zealand’s most famous poet as he reaches his seventies and wonders if death is near.

We Can Make a Life: A memoir of family, earthquakes and courage by Chessie Henry (Victoria University Press, $35)

A touching memoir from a refreshing voice, We Can Make a Life is the story of Chessi Henry’s family and their story of both the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes. Her dad was a doctor who crawled through makeshift tunnels in the wreckage of the CTV building, looking for the living and the dead. She interviews him at length and the result is a moving record of trauma and survival, of decency and quiet heroism.

Tinderbox by Megan Dunn (Galley Beggar Press, $30)

Wellington author Dunn’s meta-memoir about writing, bookselling, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the film thereof. It has a touch of Nick Hornby’s “What I’m Reading” columns for The Believer about it (a compliment; those columns are the best of Hornby). Like Hornby, Dunn captures how we really engage with art, as opposed to how we aspire and pretend to. And she’s very funny. That’s always good. Keeps you off the Pernod.

From the Corner of the Oval Office by Beck Dorey-Stein (Penguin, $38)

Join us and help make
independent journalism happen!
Find Out More

Stenographer to Obama, Beck Dorey-Stein is America’s real-life answer to Bridget Jones. The intimate intricacies of the partying, shagging, and flirting on and off Air Force One during Obama’s administration are served as a platter of raucous excitement. The insecurities of a 20something woman having an affair with a senior staffer are entwined with Obama’s administration and his politics, and it’s sensationally addictive.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff (Little Brown, $38)

Danyl McLauchlan, The Spinoff Review of Books: “An instant classic of political reporting, The Fire and Fury is not so much an insight into the Trump administration as it is a detailed confirmation that it functions exactly how you imagine, and exactly how it’s been reported: a rolling, brawling, ever-widening clusterfuck of incompetence, infighting and chaos, which Wolff documents with forensic detail and acidic prose.”


As selected by our panel of readers Ashleigh Young, Philip Matthews, Guy Somerset, Tilly Lloyd, Chloe Blades, Kiran Dass and Steve Braunias. All titles are available at Unity Books.


The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.