BooksDecember 14, 2019

The 10 best New Zealand non-fiction books of 2019


We started picking a top 10 ourselves and puttered out at about #3, sick of the sound of our own voice. Bugger it, we thought, and sent for assistance. It’s been like Christmas ever since, an inbox flowing over with gorgeous, sincere little gifts. Here’s the nonfiction selection, in no particular order. Stand by for more to come on fiction and poetry.

Let Me Be Frank by Sarah Laing (Victoria University Press, $35, essay here

Linda Burgess writes:

She reveals just enough and is pitch-perfect when it comes to intergenerational relationships, daily domestic life, and the angst she feels that accompanies her ambition. I can never get enough of these. 

Someone’s Wife by Linda Burgess (Allen & Unwin, $36.99, review here)

Catherine Woulfe writes:

My mum took my copy on holiday with her yesterday and I feel a bit bereft without it. Linda writes like I’d like to, surefooted and clever and kind, kind, kind. She is writing about herself in these essays but she is also, always, thinking about her readers. Always looking after them. Buy it for Christmas, give it all the prizes, read it so you can love it like I do. 

All Who Live on Islands by Rose Lu (Victoria University Press, $30, interview here)

Tina Makereti writes:

From start to finish, it was a pleasure, looking into this other life that is so different from my own, yet so familiar, carried by a voice so assured and clear-seeing, laughing (cringing?) along with the horrors of small town New Zealand and the way it can feel to outgrow the shape and constraints of our families. Of all the beauty in this book, at the time of writing (insomniac o’clock, 3.31am), I can’t seem to get Edward Scrumpyhands out of my head.

Te Rito o te Harakeke – A collection of writing for Ihumātao (information and download available here)

Pip Adam writes:

I’m stretching the category of non-fiction further than I probably should but I can’t stop recommending Te Rito o te Harakeke – A collection of writing for Ihumātao. This affecting and beautiful collection of responses to the land and action of Ihumātao is such an important record that it feels like non-fiction to me. The poetry and other forms in it seem like a vitally needed way of discussing the events in our world. Through emotion and rhythm, tone and mood this collection brings us closer to understanding what we don’t understand about some of the most complex issues facing Aotearoa. 

I also just want to give a shout-out to Madison Hamill’s outstanding Instagram account. Madison has an essay collection, Specimen, out next year and in the meantime these illustrated micro-essays are amazing! 

Strong Words 2019: The Best of the Landfall Essay Competition selected by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $35, extract here)

Hera Lindsay Bird writes:

This essay anthology edited by Emma Neale has some incredible pieces of writing. Because the book is essentially a competition shortlist, there is no uniting theme or elegantly woven strands that draw everything seamlessly together into a rich tapestry of meaning, or whatever it is most essay anthologies do. Instead, it’s just weird and eclectic and I love it. 

Hera’s just won a 2020 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, along with Michalia Arathimos. Congrats both. 

We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa by Chris McDowall & Tim Denee (Massey University Press, $70)

Catherine Woulfe writes:

Lots of you are getting this for Christmas, according to the Unity lists. Lucky! It is a data-vis atlas of us. Of you. It’s also a showstopper, a conversation-starter, a beauty, a billion great design decisions bundled into a book, as our reviewer Aaron Schiff put it

Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press, $40, review here)

Rachael King writes:

A raw, sad and funny as hell memoir that is not just about music but friends, family and loss. As good a depiction of a New Zealand childhood as I’ve ever read, a real-life Southern Gothic, shot through with anecdotes, music criticism and a dagger-sharp eye for character, both winsome and scathing.

Southern Nights by Naomi Arnold (HarperCollins, $65)

Michelle Langstone writes:

I’ve read a lot of non-fiction this year, and I’ve been up to my eyeballs in memoir and creative essays, and I’ve loved them all, but Naomi’s book about the history of astronomy in New Zealand has stayed with me the longest. It’s written like an evocative yet clear-headed dream and history lesson in one, and is an entreaty to come back to the natural world. It educated me without being dull, and it inspired me without the nausea of a Ted talk. When you hold it in your hands it is handsome, and when you turn the pages it is beautifully alive with stunning photography. It made me love the world a bit more, right when I needed it the most. 

Always Song in the Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, $45, extract here)

Catherine Woulfe writes:

Always Song’s spine is indigo streaked with white; at night I look at it on my bookshelf and think of phosphorescence. It is a drifting, mesmerising collection: essays, poems, odd bits of yarns, memories and photographs, art, friends, family. Life. It pulls you down deep. I particularly liked Greg’s story about his mum nursing someone very very famous, and a drive-by photograph of Southland topiary.

The New Zealand Wars: Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa by Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99, extract here)

Fiona Kidman writes:

The land wars stories have been making the news all this year, and a greater understanding of our history has led to new approaches in government policies. O’Malley sets out the circumstances that led to the wars in an accessible, readable format, suitable for a wide range of readers. The book is beautifully produced and handsomely illustrated. An essential read for all citizens of Aotearoa.

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
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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