(Photo: Catherine Woulfe; Design: Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Catherine Woulfe; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksNovember 30, 2021

The Spinoff’s Christmas 2021 book-shopping guide

(Photo: Catherine Woulfe; Design: Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Catherine Woulfe; Design: Tina Tiller)

Bamboozled in the bookstore? Books editor Catherine Woulfe matches the people you’re buying for with some of the year’s best local books.

The person is a baby.

Easy. Kei te aha ngā kararehe? / What are the animals doing? by Te Ataakura Pewhairangi (MUP). Jane Ussher photographs a rad little family playing with animals including but not limited to chooks, a surly cat, a baby goat, a kunekune piglet and a TINY HORSE. 

Two book covers: in the first, a young red-headed boy with a sweet undercut and a big grin sits in the grass, holding a puppy. The second is an illustration of a pūkeko in bright green ponga leaves.
(Images: Supplied)

They are new to New Zealand (or they miss it very much).

Then they’re going to need the 40th anniversary edition of A Pūkeko in a Ponga Tree, adapted by Kingi M. Ihaka, illustrated by Dick Frizzell (Puffin). A beautiful hardback version of the picture book classic, featuring a welcome tweak: macrons. 


They’re in their togs weirdly a lot. Like, Speedos in the dairy. Wet bum-cheek marks on the couch. 

Couple of options, both essay collections: Where We Swim by Ingrid Horrocks (VUP), which Horrocks describes as “a non-fiction book that seeks to create a complex web of connections, local and global, human and non-human. There is the narrator (me) worrying away about sea-level rise while walking to the beach with her kids. There is a pool in the desert in Arizona and a pool in a sectioned-off part of the Amazon river. There is the first swim of Level 3 … ” See also Times Like These: On grief, hope and remarkable love, by Michelle Langstone (Allen & Unwin) which takes the reader on an astonishing emotional plunge. There are oodles of sea swims and messing around in boats, but be aware Langstone also writes at length about her infertility, and the death of her wonderful dad. We published an excerpt

Three book covers, two of which feature turquoise/green photographs of water, the third is an illustration of a figure running with a ball.
(Images: Supplied)

The person had a poem in Sport – or will forever maintain they would have, had it only run to one more issue.

You should buy: A Game of Two Halves: The Best of Sport 2005-2019 edited by Fergus Barrowman (VUP). Doesn’t even matter if their piece didn’t make this anthology, because it also handily doubles as a monument to the literary magazine that folded this year. Long live Sport


Last year they grew their own chives for the potato salad and this year they’re growing the gherkins and spuds, too.

The Joy of Gardening by Lynda Hallinan (Allen & Unwin). A hardback, gold embossed on white, containing Hallinan’s intelligent, empathetic take on what gardening does for a person. Hallinan’s our best gardening writer by miles and a very good journalist. May the snails ever spare her dahlias. 

Covers of three hardback books, two memoir and one about gardening.
(Images: Supplied)

Lockdown has been extra shit for them. 

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles (Canongate) will be a balm. Essays. Brilliant, colour-saturated, ecology-oriented, profoundly affecting essays. Here’s my review, and perhaps my favourite paragraph of the year: 

Wind shakes the flower clusters of the kōwhai in my parents’ garden by the sea. Fallen petals scatter in the grass next to the lemon tree, where lemons tremble and drop, creating a carpet in varying shades of yellow and gold. The smell and the colour of this corner of the garden is overwhelming.

I also recommend From the Centre by Patricia Grace (Penguin) – a small, hardbacked memoir of immense mana.

They maintain a polite facade but underneath they’re at level four, freaking out, species-extinction turmoil over the climate crisis and humanity in general.

You can’t fix it but you can show that you get it. She’s A Killer by Kirsten McDougall (VUP) is a novel that will at once endorse this inner state but also leaven things, somehow. It’s very funny, clever, compulsive – it’s about a woman navigating a messed-up future Aotearoa. Here’s an excerpt. Pair it with Unsheltered by Clare Moleta (Scribner), another great novel, this time about a woman navigating a messed-up future Australia. Clever, compulsive, not funny. Contains many scenes of awful loss, thirst, and grind, and one perfect scene of world-stopping beauty and hope. Elizabeth Knox is in awe of it. 

Two book covers, the first bright red with the title picked out in yellow blips, like morse code; the second an image of a dead rabbit on a black background.
(Images: Supplied)

The person is relentlessly, intimidatingly rad.

I give you choices three: A bathful of kawakawa and hot water: selected writings by Hana Pera Aoake (Compound Press); How to Live with Mammals by Ash Davida Jane (VUP); Rangikura by Tayi Tibble (VUP). Each of them gorgeously put together, electric, and way cooler than you are. The last two are poetry and the first, I suppose you’d call it a book of essays, is so charged and intuitive it feels like poetry, too. 

Three gorgeously-designed book covers, wildly different in style, ranging from street-art in hot pink and turquoise to a cover that's all khaki with stylish typeface.
(Images: Supplied)

They are … three, maybe? Four? 

Thin pickings on the picture book front this year – so much awful earnest stuff about Covid – but you might choose Kaewa the Kororā by Rachel Haydon and illustrated by Pippa Keel (MUP), a very well done, fact-based story about a flock of little blue penguins at the National Aquarium. As a standing rule you can buy any children’s book from Huia and it will be amazing – this year I especially like their picture book The Greatest Haka Festival on Earth by Pania Tahau-Hodges, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse, in which a bunch of cousins and their “haka freak” Nan pile into a van to attend Te Matatini. Highlight: the race to spread out the tarp in a good spot.

A few classics have been nicely updated, too: Puffin has put out bilingual editions of Patricia Grace / Robyn Kahukiwa beauties Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street and The Kuia and the Spider. And I’m into The Boy Who Made Things Up by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Lily Emo (Moa) – Emo’s bright, gorgeous, appropriately whimsical pictures re-up a Mahy classic. The story’s about how grownups work too much and lack imagination. Fair.

Five colourful picture book covers.
(Images: Supplied)

Or maybe even six? 

Atua: Māori Gods and Heroes by Gavin Bishop (Picture Puffin). It’s a big, surreally beautiful hardback that stands out on a bookshelf like a black-backed gull among legions of lesser seabirds. 

For older kids, I wholeheartedly recommend rollicking adventure stories The Mapmakers’ Race and The Uprising – The Mapmakers in Cruxcia by Eirlys Hunter (Gecko Press), and Spark Hunter by Sonya Wilson (The Cuba Press), about a girl who finds fairies – and a quest – in the forests of Fiordland. Falling Into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku (Huia) is an awesome option, too – it’s about 14 year-old twins who venture into the underworld. There’s a very cool taniwha, loads of steam (as in literally, steam) and trickery. 

Five covers of junior fiction books, all colourful and eclectic (Images: Supplied)
(Images: Supplied)

They vote National.

Helen Kelly: Her Life by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press). Superbly reported biography of a great union leader. 

Two books, one gorgeously designed featuring a black and white photo of a young woman; the other featuring head and shoulders photograph of a middle-aged woman, red banners at top and bottom.
(Images: Supplied)

They just love a bit of amateur psychoanalysis.

Make their overstepping day with The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage). Without question the book of the year, a masterclass in memoir, dissection and nuance. Everyone in it is absolutely fascinating. Also it will make anyone (except Karl) feel like a better parent.

(Images: Supplied)

Everything’s a competition

They’ll appreciate, then, that A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong (AUP) is – this seems ridiculous, but it’s true – the first anthology of Asian New Zealand writing. Then they’ll start reading and realise it’s also one of the best books of 2021, full stop. Right there with it on both fronts is Out Here: An anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ writers from Aotearoa, edited by Chris Tse and Emma Barnes (AUP, $49.99). Not technically the first anthology of queer writing, but definitely the first that feels like a big loud glorious landmark. Plus it’s brilliant. (These two would also be solid choices for anyone who’s into collecting or exquisite design.)

They are Aucklanders blithely heading off on holiday this summer.

Let them unwrap The Last Guests by J.P. Pomare (Hachette), a top-notch thriller in which Aucklanders are terrorised at an Airbnb near Rotorua. 

They are not Aucklanders but you’d like to convert them.

Give ’em Greta & Valdin by Rebecca Reilly (VUP), a very funny novel set in the centre of Tāmaki Makaurau. You can almost smell the midsummer petrichor. Eg “It’s been raining and the sky is a brilliant orange colour, reflected in puddles on the freshly resealed road. The house is in Epsom. It seems very unlike my brother to buy a house in an area best known as a hotspot for right-wing plotting, but it isn’t far away from our parents’ house.” Or: “The footpath on High Street is narrow, and I keep swerving around the bags of rubbish outside the shops and stepping off the kerb to let other people pass … People smoke shisha all day and night on this part of the street, the raspberry smoke clouds linger in the dense humidity. It must be nearly 30 degrees.”

Three book covers: thriller with a spooky lakeside house, novel with a simple cover of pastel green and turquoise, comic book with a bright orange background, two kids swarming a dad.
(Images: Supplied)

They are a dad.

The best and only option is Dad Man Walking by Toby Morris (Penguin). It’s a book of comics that says to all kinds of fathers: I see that you are a person too, and I remember all the silly lovely stuff you did for me, and let’s both alternately laugh and have a big lump in our throats while we flick through this on Christmas morning. 

They have mastered the fine art of pottering.

Consider The Commercial Hotel by John Summers (VUP). A collection of wonderful essays, written mostly on the train between Greytown and Wellington, covering such topics as freezing works, apple picking, Anzac Day, tramping, grandparents, Norman Kirk, and cricket. We published an interview with Summers. 

Cover on left is a painting of an art deco building; cover on right is dominated by title, a bit of barbed wire along the bottom.
(Images: Supplied)

They have opinions.

Meet them where they are, with Prison Break by Arthur Taylor (Allen & Unwin). A life of crime and injustice, told with dominate-the-dinner-party energy. Here’s an excerpt

Two novels, both featuring a golden dragon twisting around roses. Cover on left also features a dagger; on right, a lighter and flames.
(Images: Supplied)

The person is you. 

Gift yourself These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong (Hachette). One of those Young Adult series that is definitely for old adults, too. Both books are complex, bloody, loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, and set in 1920s Shanghai. There’s glamour, gangs, politics, monsters, an anything-but-innocent love story, and lots of knives. 

Gong was born in Shanghai and raised in Auckland and she is a phenomenon: she wrote These Violent Delights in about a month when she was 18. It launched late last year and spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. The other week it popped back up at number four, with Our Violent Ends casually sauntering onto the list at number one. Merry Christmas to Chloe Gong and her Roma and Juliette – and to you.

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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