Kākahi Marae, 2008; from the book Observations of a Rural Nurse, by Sara McIntyre (Photo: Sara McIntyre)

Twenty books that were a tonic in 2020

Books editor Catherine Woulfe runs through her favourites.

This is a joyfully subjective list, in no particular order, and with no real thought for how many are novels or non-fiction or non-fiction with illustrations, or whatever. They’re just books I flat-out love. Some we’ve covered during the year but others, equally deserving, completely whooshed past – partly because my reading time was obliterated by kids during lockdowns, and partly because shipping was so slammed that for weeks no books would arrive, then they’d all land at once. I’m still playing catchup and will no doubt read books over the summer that I’ll wish I’d shouted about here.

Please note, this is not a best-of list – we’re not doing those this year. Doesn’t quite sit right.

Looking back, I see I’ve gravitated to a sense of mastery and poise. Lots of novels. Green. Goodness. Beauty. Tonics, I suppose, and I am grateful for every one of them, and for everything else that was sent in during this strange year.

Caravan in a paddock, horses grazing, foxgloves.

Caravan and foxglove, Kākahi, 2014; from the book Observations of a Rural Nurse, by Sara McIntyre (Photo: Sara McIntyre)

Novels

A special thank you to Chloe Lane for writing The Swimmers (Victoria University Press), a novel about a daughter enduring her mother’s euthanasia and the absolute uncanny fuckedupness of the week or so around it. The book is low-key beautiful and mundane and short and so is the death, mercifully. Fifteen minutes after I finished it I got a call from Mum. Dad was unresponsive after a massive stroke and the rest home was talking about withholding food and water. “It” could take up to 10 days, they said. Then he woke up.

Mākaro Press followed Becky Manawatu’s Auē with a novel called Victory Park, by Rachel Kerr. It’s written with the same kindness and quiet competence that defines her protagonist, a single mum with too much to carry. Shit it’s good – I wrote about it here. I would love this novel to be hung about with prizes, just for the joy of seeing the everyday heroics of women recognised and rewarded. And I suspect it just might be.

Meg Mason floored me with her second novel, Sorrow and Bliss (4th Estate). Then Jean Sergent floored me with her review of it. I just checked with Mason and yes she is eligible to enter the Ockhams – she lives in Australia but grew up here. Good. Her book is about a woman named Martha. As a teenager, something snapped in Martha’s head; this is the story of her figuring out what that was, and coping, and it feels like Mason has found a new way to write about mental illness, and it is hilarious.

Ted Dawe published his first novel for adults and it landed with no fuss at all. Answering to the Caul (Mangakino University Press) deserves more – it’s a strong and optimistic story about a boy’s hard life and his mysterious connection to water. Dawe has a deftness with language and a great eye for fairness – I kept thinking of Roald Dahl – and a well of compassion at the heart of him. He wrote for us about schools and truth and Dilworth College (where he used to teach English) after news broke of a historic sexual abuse scandal there.

A stack of books

Class of 2020. Absent, due to enthusiastic loaning: Victory Park, Sorrow and Bliss, Map for the Heart, Nothing to See (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

Slate’s books editor Dan Kois started the year with a rave that helped net Elizabeth Knox a US publishing deal, and now he’s anointed Pip Adam’s Nothing to See (VUP). “A stone-cold genius”, he called Adam a few days back, naming the novel in his top 10 for the year. The book’s blurb says it’s about identity and surveillance capitalism; what I found captivating is the way Adam wrote about alcoholism. Just the grind of it, the pragmatics, the self-trickery. We published an extract and a review.

More on addiction: Eileen Merriman wrote her best novel yet, The Silence of Snow (Black Swan) about an anaesthetist going under. Merriman writes at pace, in snatches of time around her work as a doctor of haematology at North Shore Hospital. There is a similar, singular energy to her books. Merriman also loves a zingy love story and The Silence of Snow has one of those, set against the backdrop of what life (ie work) is really like as a young doctor. I wrote about it here.

Carl Nixon next, with a blinder: his novel The Tally Stick (Vintage) gave me the same electric chills as Auē. Our reviewer Erin Harrington was struck by it too. The book is set in the bush and back blocks of the West Coast, and it follows three English children orphaned in a car crash. You’ll read it in huge desperate gulps. You’ll never look at eels the same way again.

Non-fiction

Jane Ussher’s book of photographs, Nature – Stilled (Te Papa Press) really did stop me in my frazzled tracks. For a couple of hours I just sat quietly and looked, at eels and corals and mosses and kākāriki, and I read all the captions with their calm data and Latin, and it was one of the best afternoons I had all year. We published an extract here.

Similarly, Sara McIntyre’s Observations of a Rural Nurse (Massey University Press). This one’s a longer walk, through Kākahi / King Country – I’m still pottering about with it – but every time I flip it open there comes a rush of green and peace, a sense of intimacy, and energy, and potent nostalgia. Photographs from it are used throughout this piece.

Interior scene with houseplants, a wall tapestry, and cats asleep on a Coke-branded shelf.

Taumarunui tapestry, 2017; from the book Observations of a Rural Nurse, by Sara McIntyre (Photo: Sara McIntyre)

MUP also published a small white square book called Te Manu Huna a Tāne, a collection of essays and photographs that I initially found extremely confronting but then, somehow, soothing. Subject matter: three generations of Ngāti Torehina ki Matakā learning to pelt kiwi. The editor and photographer is Jenny Gillam, with co-editor Eugene Hansen (Maniapoto). We nabbed one of the essays, by Matariki Williams, and essa may ranapiri reviewed the book for us: “I cried many times reading this book. The first was from the raw intensity of the photography – this is a book you look at before reading. I’m captured by the stark intensity of the kiwi, their dead bodies laid across the pages. It feels like a tangihanga for ngā manu. I’m sitting in the small hours with their bodies weighing on my mind, in plastic bags, on newspapers, so still and flattened by the page … ”

Possibly the most beautiful book to publish in 2020? That’s how Auckland University Press opened its PR email about Karl Maughan, by Hannah Valentine and Gabriella Stead – and yeah, maybe it is, actually. This book is the first to focus on Maughan alone. It has the sure squat proportions of a garden gate and it positively screams with colour. Purple rhodos, lime-lilypad nasturtiums, orange dahlias, rudbeckias the bright yellow of bees in the sun. Who cares about the words, but they’re pretty lovely, too.

Stan Walker astonished me with his masterfully structured memoir of abuse and forgiveness, Impossible: My Story (Harper Collins). The abuse came at Walker from all corners, it started young, and it was enough to sour any ordinary person. You get it all in full-on detail but you also get wisdom and perspective and – I’m trying not to write “ultimately, hope” – but actually, ultimately, hope. It was written with Margie Thomson. She comprehensively nailed it. Sam Brooks reviewed it for us.

Anthologies / collections

Ko Aotearoa Tātou / We Are Aotearoa (Otago University Press) is a collection of poems and art and essays and stories that was pulled together as we all (well, most of us) took a good hard look at ourselves after March 15. It must have been a nightmare to edit but Michelle Elvy, Paula Morris and James Norcliffe make it read easy. I like that so much of the work here semi-accidentally has to do with food – cups of tea, kebabs, G&T, rice porridge – it provides a simple hook for complex, often challenging writing and art.

Shane, 2015; from the book Observations of a Rural Nurse, by Sara McIntyre (Photo: Sara McIntyre)

How did I not know about Jillian Sullivan? She’s been publishing for yonks. I only picked up her latest, Map for the Heart: Ida Valley Essays (OUP), when I was trapped under a sleeping toddler and it was the one book I could reach. It comes with my highest recommendation – Sullivan writes about building a new home and a new life, and about the sky and wild roses and a river, a small community. We published one of the essays, about missing her family.

Tom Doig wrote a cracking introduction to Living with the Climate Crisis: Voices from Aotearoa (Bridget Williams Books). It’s one of those $15 BWB Texts and it’s full of perfect grim essays, only some of which made me want to claw my heart out or head, lemming-like, for the nearest cliff. We’ll be publishing one of the more hopeful pieces soon.

Karlo Mila’s Goddess Muscle (Huia) arrived on a day I really needed it. These are poems that revel in the power of women and land and connectedness. They have so much colour. They can be wildly angry, encouraging, wry, unspeakably tender. I cried and cried over ‘For all my sisters’. I’m reading slowly, allowing myself a couple of shots a day. I’m realising I don’t read nearly enough poetry. We’ll publish a review soon.

Children

Bren MacDibble published another ripping climate fiction yarn. Technically Across the Risen Sea (Allen & Unwin) is junior fiction, but I grown-up loved it. There are massive sharks and crocs – at one point there’s a fight between a massive shark and a croc – and sailing, and there are elements of Life of Pi and Waterworld and the series Sand, by Hugh Howey. We published an extract. I think this book is even better than her previous two, The Dog Runner and How to Bee, both highly acclaimed.

Landscape photograph of a fenceline following the top of a hill.

Te Rena, view from my kitchen window, 2016; from the book Observations of a Rural Nurse, by Sara McIntyre (Photo: Sara McIntyre)

Kimberly Andrews wrote and illustrated the stunning picture book Hound the Detective (Puffin). It’s a spinoff of Puffin the Architect and set in the same world – imagine Grand Designs, except the clients are animals. Andrews is extraordinarily skilled with light and perspective (see also her illustrations for Joy Cowley’s Song of the River). Her books are happy and clever, with strong stories to string the art together. You’ll still be spotting fresh details on your 74th read-through. There is an arm-pump moment at the end of Puffin the Architect where it’s casually revealed that the kick-ass puffin architect is female and there’s an equally cool element in Hound, but I’m not going to spoil it.

Egg & Spoon! My goodness. It’s a big red recipe book, written by Havelock North cook Alexandra Tylee and gorgeously illustrated by Giselle Clarkson, published by Gecko Press. There are bright ribbons to mark your place, and it’s allegedly for kids but the food will appeal to grown-ups, too. We’ve made the roast chook and the jelly tip ice blocks and the apple chips, and flicking through with my boy choosing what to cook next (sweet stuffed kūmara? Baked beans, kind of? Pink smoothie?) is an absolute delight. There are no duds, no “Oh god, sorry love, let’s not attempt that.” Egg & Spoon is going to win a bunch of prizes, promise. I wish all books for children were made with such care and joy and expertise.

The Nature Activity Book (Te Papa Press) is written by Rachel Haydon with illustrations by Pippa Keel. It should be considered a staple of the just-in-case box. Just in case our magical thinking about 2021 fails. Just in case the kids get chickenpox this summer and start bouncing off the walls. Just in case you are struck by the urgent need to lie down while your boy plays in the garden, happily, for hours. The design rocks and so do the activities (we published “how to make a mandala”). On the brink of a long, hot school holidays, the kids and I give thanks.




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