BooksDecember 14, 2016

Best books of 2016: the 20 best books of non-fiction


You’ve seen all the other best-of books lists and as the saying goes: they’re shit! Yeah nah this is the only one you need, as the Spinoff’s team of democratic experts bring together memoir, history, survivor’s stories, boxing, shops and other subjects from real life.

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved & Died in The 1940s (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, $40) by Anne Sebba

The Spinoff’s choice not just as best book of non-fiction of 2016 but as the best book of any kind. “Courage is a lovely concept but especially attractive when it’s an idea as opposed to a necessary reality. Anne Sebba’s fabulous book, Les Parisiennes, sets out to show in a remarkably non-judgmental way, how the women of Paris acted when faced with German occupation in WW2, and perhaps even more interestingly, how they behaved in the years immediately following,” wrote Linda Burgess.

 Double-Edged Sword (Mary Egan, $38) by Simonne Butler with Andra Jenkin

A survivor’s story – Butler was one of the two women P-freak asshole Tony Dixon went at with his Samurai sword on a summer’s day in 2003 – but also a portrait of authentic Westie life. It’s full of great sentences, it’s darkly funny in places, and it revisits the central terror in fine, astonishing detail: “I caught my hand as it fell through the air and I calmly tried to stick it back on.”


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile, $28) by Mary Beard

There were two stonking popular histories published this year, both of empires made epic by lust and greed and philosophical madness; SPQR was the less monstrous, but more exotic. An easy, thrilling read.

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $50) by Simon Sebag Montefiore

The other stonking popular history of the year, and far more monstrous than SPQR. Montefiore chronicles depravity and monstrousness to an extent that will have your eyes hanging out of their sockets while achieving the difficult simultaneous feat of being glued to the page. Gruesome, bro.

My Father’s Island: A Memoir (Victoria University Press, $35) by Adam Dudding

Memoir of the year. Widely admired and awarded as one of New Zealand’s best long-form journalists, Dudding goes way, way further with this voyage around his father Robin, an depressive, literary eccentric getting up to all sorts of mayhem and disorder in Torbay on Auckland’s North Shore.

The Māori Meeting House: Introducing the whare whakairo (Te Papa Press, $49.99) by Damian Skinner

Sumptuous and sensitive illustrated art history of the marae in New Zealand life. “Great writing, great feel, and impeccable aesthetics…At $49.99 it’s a bargain or possibly even a steal because of all the taonga inside,” wrote Talia Marshall.


The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Canongate, $40) by Olivia Laing

Very nearly the Spinoff’s choice as best book of non-fiction of 2016. Laing is a singular writer, who thinks her way in and out of that most terrifying state of being in urban life: loneliness.

Mansfield & Me: A Graphic Memoir (Victoria University Press, $35) by Sarah Laing

No other book like it, really, is there? It’s a memoir told in colourful drawings, and the story intersects with insights into the life and times of Katherine Mansfield. All up: a work of art.

Can You Tolerate This? (Victoria University Press, $30) by Ashleigh Young

Genius at work. New Zealand’s best prose writer gathers her thoughts in an intimate, personal, thoughtful, socially engaged collection of essays.

 1971: Never A Dull Moment (Bantam Press, $70) by David Hepworth

The premise is simple and audacious: 1971 was the greatest year in music, ever. Hepworth goes about his argument with brilliant chapters on Bowie, Sly Stone, Carole King, T Rex, Led Zep, Yes, Nick Drake and many other artists who created masterpieces in that shimmering year.


Things That Matter: Stories of Life & Death from an Intensive Care Specialist (Allen & Unwin, $37) by David Galler

The Spinoff’s choice as best New Zealand book of the year – it’s scandalous that this massively popular and affecting book failed to make the longlist of the 2017 Ockham national book awards. Dr Galler takes an up close and personal look at the real-life medical dramas in intensive care.

The Shops (Luncheon Sausage Books, $40) by Steve Braunias and Peter Black

But it’s written by and published by the editor of the Spinoff Review of Books! Has he chosen his own book in this elite list? You bet! His collaboration with photographer Peter to create a quiet, lyrical celebration of New Zealand shops in small towns is awesome. Do the math: 44 colour photographs and 6000 words = a perfect Xmas gift.

Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to the Greatest (HarperSport, $34.99) by Thomas Hauser

The meaning of Muhammad Ali by his great biographer.

Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953 (Auckland University Press, $70) by Peter Simpson

Art book of the year. It’s the one Simpson was meant to write; his various investigations into the Christchurch art scene have led to this fascinating history of 20 years of frenetic artistic activity, aided and abetted by the likes of Curnow and Glover. Beautifully illustrated, beautifully art directed.


In Love with These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records (HarperCollins, $37) by Roger Shepherd

You bought the records, now buy the book. Artful memoir by the quiet architect of Flying Nun. All the bands are there, all the seething unruly punks – Carter, Knox, etc – and Shepherd lays himself bare.

The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir (Schwartz, $26) by Vivian Gornick

This sly old New York broad was the absolute star of the 2016 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. She was candid about everything, including anal sex; her book lays it all out.

Women of the Catlins: Life In The Deep South (Otago University Press, $49.95) by Diana Noonan and Cris Antona

Striking black and white photographs, and stories of women in the Otago region of the Catlins. Roy Colbert wrote, “It has the appeal of Country Calendar, an endless stream of exceptional smiling New Zealanders making miraculous stuff from a sow’s ear…. There are so many glorious quintessential one-liners in this book. They should pick 52 and turn them into a souvenir pack of playing cards at the museum shop. I counted at least seven that were cardable in the opening chapter, and you would be hard put to find a better one-liner in non-fiction anywhere than Judy Walker on page 59 – ‘I don’t let being the wool ganger go to my head.’”

 Roughy: Fishing the Mid-Ocean Ridges (Bach Books, $24.95) by AJ Peach

The best fishing book of the year. Peach tells it like it is, in this fresh, amusing account of his life and times as an ancient mariner, with a stand-out chapter about working on a Ukrainian rustbucket.


Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means (Bloomsbury, $49.99) by Brendan King

 “This is the first full-length biography of Beryl Bainbridge, the brilliant Liverpudlian novelist…..So many men! It’s not the morality concerns me, it’s the strain on the memory. Harry, Hugh, Paul, Ken, Adam, George, Mick, Les, Alan, Harold, Mike, Don, Ronnie, and all. If this were a soap – and at one point Beryl had a part in Coronation Street, playing a left-wing friend of Ken Barlow’s – no storyliner would ever come up with such repetitious script. Beryl falls in love, Beryl cries, then Beryl spots the perfect man and we’re back to: ‘this is the one’”, wrote Marion McLeod.

Through the Eyes of a Miner: The Photography of Joseph Divis (Friends of Waiuta/Craig Potton Books, $40) by Simon Nathan

Strange, haunting photographs of a small West Coast mining settlement – Waiuta – before the mine closed and it became, virtually overnight, a ghost town.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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