Reading is one of life's great pleasures - is there anything better than a quiet hour to yourself to devour a new book? Whether you're looking for stocking fillers or the best summer holiday reading, this is the Canvas guide to the best books of 2020.
Most memorable books of 2020
2020 won't soon be forgotten. Neither will the books that Kiran Dass loved most.
Aroha: Māori Wisdom for a Contented Life Lived in Harmony with Our Planet
By Hinemoa Elder (Penguin Random House, $30)
Proverb books can be trite and cheesy but psychiatrist Dr Hinemoa Elder's exquisitely produced Aroha is an elegant and well-timed balm that offers an open door to the healing world of Māori wisdom. Exploring traditional Māori philosophy through 52 whakatauki, Aroha presents one pithy life lesson for each week of the year. Elder places a strong focus on manaakitanga (hospitality and love for each other), kaitiakitanga (guardianship of and respect for our planet), and whanaungatanga (community and connectivity). If one word has reverberated through 2020, it is "kindness" and more than ever, people are attuned to "collective kindness". The word "aroha" encompasses more than just love - it extends to compassion and empathy. I've seen multiple bookshop punters scoop up and buy copies of this book by the fistful - you need one for yourself and one for somebody you love.
Funny Weather: Art in An Emergency
By Olivia Laing (Picador, $50)
Ironically published in the middle of the emergency (hello, pandemic), this superb collection of essays, criticism, book reviews, artist profiles and love letters to her favourite artists by cultural critic Olivia Laing is a tonic for the turbulent times we find ourselves living in. She asks if art can do anything, particularly in times of chaos. And she argues that yes, it can. Art doesn't have a duty to be beautiful or uplifting but it does humanise us and it gets us to exercise our critical and moral faculties. Focusing mostly on women and queer artists who made work in hostile environments under circumstances of hardship, Laing writes that art is a nourishing lifeline that accompanies us and allows us to feel our feelings. "Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It's work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it's up to you," she writes. A rallying cry for hope, this soothing book is about resistance and repair.
Notes From An Apocalypse: A Journey to the End of the World and Back
By Mark O'Connell (Granta, $33)
I started reading this book right at that nervy moment when New Zealand went into alert level 4, which added a piercingly uncomfortable prescience. The title may sound doom-laden and, while this book is terrifying, it is also thrillingly hilarious because O'Connell is such a keen observer of the absurd and comic. When he found himself questioning the moral implications of bringing children into a world that seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse amid capitalism, climate change and inequality, he decided to find and talk to "preppers" - a subculture of people prepping for the end of the world. In this engaging travelogue, he explores the apocalypse from cultural, political, scientific and personal angles, reporting from the Chernobyl exclusion zone, South Dakota, the Scottish Highlands, and New Zealand - where he travels to Lake Wānaka in search of tech billionaire Peter Thiel's bolthole. You couldn't make up any of this bonkers stuff and the result is a page-turning riot.
Humankind: A Hopeful History
By Rutger Bregman (Bloomsbury, $35)
We may all feel rinsed-out and jaded after being pummelled by 2020's spin cycle of doom, but historian and philosopher Rutger Bregman's Humankind has a galvanising optimism that sets out to convince us that human nature is fundamentally good and that we are actually better people than we give ourselves credit for. Rigorously researched, this radical book debunks popular philosophical theory that humans by nature are selfish and destructive, and I'm thrilled that along the way, Bregman has the guts to critique those sometimes phony "popular science" commentators Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond. An added bonus is his response to the toxic and preposterous Jordan B. Peterson's 12 Rules for Life. Rather than barking "clean your room", Bregman offers more sensible nuggets of advice such as temper your empathy and train your compassion. If you liked Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, read Bregman's book - because it is actually better.
By Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, $34)
Ali Smith's searing seasonal quartet is a sequence of novels which have each been rapidly published practically in real time, documenting the tumultuous last few years and tapping into the heavy news cycle. Smith weaves into her narrative reportage of the Australian wildfires, the climate crisis and NHS unrest. And she started writing this novel at the end of January this year, as people began suffering from a strange and scary respiratory disease that was making the news and the Black Lives Matters protests exploded. Summer is an utterly satisfying conclusion to this quartet of novels but with the world still in tumult, one can't help but wonder and feel excited about what she will write next.
Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World
By Layla Saad (Quercus, $38)
British writer Layla Saad isn't mucking around. She writes, "White supremacy is a violent system of oppression that harms Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. And if you are a person who holds white privilege, then you are complicit in upholding that harm, whether you realise it or not. And if you are a person who holds white privilege, the question you should be asking isn't whether or not this is true, but rather, what are you going to do about it?" The Black Lives Matter movement saw a global craving for better understanding of racism and what to do about it. Bookshops couldn't keep up with the demand for books about race; other important anti-racist books to consider are How to Be An Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi; White Fragility: Why it's so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo; So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo (published in 2018 but updated after the killing in America of George Floyd) and Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Read the books, then do the work.
Ko Aotearoa Tātou: We Are New Zealand
Edited by Michelle Elvy, Paula Morris & James Norcliffe
Art editor David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $40)
This collection was compiled in response to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's words after the devastating Christchurch terror attacks in 2019: "We are all New Zealanders." But who are New Zealanders and what is New Zealand now in all its diversity? Bringing together a dizzying near one hundred contributors ranging from the well-known (Selina Tusitala Marsh, Apirana Taylor and Tusiata Avia) to high school students and fresh literary voices, this carefully and lovingly edited anthology spans poetry, nonfiction, essays, fiction and art, all examining national diversity and identity. This book glows with aroha and kindness. He waka eke noa - we are all in this together.
Burn it Down: Women Writing About Anger
Edited by Lilly Dancyger (Seal Press, $45)
This incendiary collection brings together essays from 22 women writers and is genuinely diverse - an important reminder that feminism does not have to look or think in one particular way. Trans women, cis women, queer women, actors, journalists and poets, women with mental illness and physical disabilities, Black, Xicana, Pakistani and white women, poor and middle class women writers all grace these pages and probe the idea of female rage and where it comes from. And while it is American in focus, the themes are staunchly universal - why are women angry and how can that anger be used for positive outcomes? Cathartic and affirming with a punk spirit, this fired-up collection shares its name with another potent collection of essays also published this year, Burn it Down! Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution, edited by Breanne Fahs.
By Sarah Moss (Picador, $35)
Summerwater may be set over the longest day during summer on a modest Scottish holiday park by a loch but the atmosphere perfectly evokes the hemmed-in claustrophobic feeling of lockdown anywhere. There are 12 people at the holiday park, and so much for a summer holiday - the weather is dreich - it's relentlessly tipping over with rain. The claustrophobia is palpable as everyone is holed up and can't do anything. The only people who are having a good time are a boisterous Ukrainian family which attracts the scorn from the other nationalistic holidaymakers. And in classic Sarah Moss territory, we are dealing with themes of the natural world in crisis, patriarchy, and menacingly, nationalism and the darkness of Brexit. But it is all very subtle and dexterously handled, like a dark undertow. The writing is very exacting and an atmospheric pleasure to read.
Best NZ kids' books of 2020
Sarah Forster recommends children's books that tackle weighty topics with grace and humour.
Hare and Ruru: A Quiet Moment
By Laura Shallcrass (Beatnik Books, $30)
This book gives young children some wonderful techniques to deal with the "noise" in their heads. Hare is struggling to find a place where noise can't reach them and Ruru helps them with their wisdom, telling them to talk to someone, focus on breathing and connect with nature.
By Rebekah Lipp and Craig Phillips (Wildling Books, $20)
Aroha Knows sees Aroha teach her friends practical ways to ground themselves in nature. Kids will enjoy the soothing message and illustrations.
I am the Universe
By Vasanti Unka (Penguin Books, $25)
I am the Universe provides a way of figuring out where we are in the world in a meta sense, with out-of-this-world illustrations from Vasanti Unka.
By Gavin Bishop (Gecko Press, $18)
If you want to begin a journey towards learning te reo Māori, first pick up Mihi by Gavin Bishop.
Kuwi and Friends Māori Picture Dictionary
Illustrated Books, $35
Continue your te reo journey and check out Kuwi and Friends Māori Picture Dictionary, featuring Kat Quin's wonderful Kuwi taking us through a great range of basic kupu, translated by Pānia Papa.
The Nature Activity Book
By Rachel Haydon and Pippa Keel (Te Papa Press, $35)
If you would like to help your slightly older kids connect with the natural world, there is no better book than The Nature Activity Book. Kids can classify wildlife, follow patterns, learn about flowers, and even learn how to conserve water with the help of this book.
Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea
By T.K. Roxborogh (Huia Publishing, $25)
Next I want to recommend three books for 8-12-year-olds that deal with the mysteries of the deep. First, Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea. After rescuing a ponaturi (mermaid) from the beach, Charlie finds himself at the centre of an ancient grudge between Māori ātua Tangaroa and Tāne, fighting for the life of he and his whānau.
The Inkberg Enigma
By Jonathan King (Gecko Press, $30)
Classically-styled graphic novel The Inkberg Enigma, begins with a boy obsessed with antiquarian books. On his way home from pawning a diving helmet, he spots some tentacles. He and his friend are drawn into the town's dark secrets, working together to get to the bottom of the evil at the heart of their town.
Across the Risen Sea
By Bren McDibble (Allen & Unwin, $19)
My third maritime tale is Across the Risen Sea which is set in a sea-level rise-ruined Australia. Our heroine is forced by some mysterious strangers on a wild adventure into the unknown to save her best friend. It somehow teaches us about democracy, while remaining a wild ride of a story complete with jumping alligators.
Mophead Tu: The Queen's Poem
By Selina Tusitala Marsh
Moving back on to firm land and into a castle, if you will, I have been looking forward all year to Mophead Tu: The Queen's Poem, by Selina Tusitala Marsh. She won the 2019 Margaret Mahy Book of the Year with her autobiographical Mophead, and second is just as phenomenal, beginning with Unity — her poem for the Queen — before explaining colonisation with a flourish and doing it all with good humour and wild illustrations.
The Rise of the Remarkables: Brasswitch and Bot
By Gareth Ward (Walker Books, $23)
This is a tale of intrigue and monsters, and wonderful steampunk creations, for kids who love fantasy. This is pitched slightly older than Ward's first series and features an immersive world of mechanical magic.
By Dan Salmon (OneTree House, $24)
Something is happening to Charlie's friends and, thanks to his dad being one of the geneticists who first discovered it, Charlie knows exactly what it is. Debut novel Neands, is the story of a rapidly spreading disease that makes humans hairier, angrier, and hornier — a supercharged puberty that can strike at any age.
Top cook books of 2020
There's nothing like a global pandemic to remind people of the value of home cooking. Lucy Corry recommends her favourite new cookbooks.
Egg & Spoon
By Alexandra Tylee with illustrations by Giselle Clarkson (Gecko, $40)
Cookbooks aimed at children are usually uniformly awful, hideously gendered (pink cakes for girls, chips and sausages for boys) or both. Thank the heavens then for this delightful New Zealand-authored and illustrated book, which avoids obvious tropes and celebrates cooking as something useful and exciting to do. Clarkson's quirky drawings and the irreverent text ("muesli can be very boring") make it all deliciously fun. The recipes themselves will appeal to childrens' palates without veering into chicken nugget territory (and they're simple enough for beginner parents, too).
One Tin Bakes
By Edd Kimber (Kyle Books, $38)
Oh, how I wish I'd got my hands on this genius book before I moved house and had to explain to my spouse why we had three large boxes full of oddly shaped cake tins. Edd Kimber, the 2010 winner of the Great British Bake Off, shows how to spark Marie Kondo-style joy in your kitchen by using just one, simple, rectangular tin. UK cooks went bananas for this book when it came out earlier in the year and it's not hard to see why. The concept is clever, the well-written recipes are easily achievable and the photographs (taken by Kimber) gorgeous.
Bella: My Life in Food
By Annabel Langbein (Allen & Unwin, $50)
This rollicking memoir, filled with tales of derring-do, partying, tragedy and a good sprinkling of recipes, proves there's much more to Our Lady of Wānaka than meets the eye. Langbein leaves no scone unturned - her idyllic Karori childhood, her teenage transformation into a "'righteous hippy on a mission to change the world", a serious foray into huntin', shootin' and fishin', lots of global adventures, her fair share of dodgy blokes and the eventual evolution of the massive Annabel Langbein brand. Imagine Indiana Jones with a wooden spoon instead of a whip and you start to get the idea - it's the tale of a delectably well-lived life.
Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine
By Monique Fiso (Godwit Press, $65)
Full disclosure: I worked on this book, so there's no way I can be completely objective about it. That said, this is probably the most important book by a New Zealand chef published this year. Monique Fiso, of multiaward-winning Wellington restaurant Hiakai, has woven together the story of traditional Māori food gathering and cooking methods with a detailed primer on indigenous ingredients and a collection of breathtakingly inventive recipes. The average home cook might struggle with some of the recipes (first catch your weka) but it's a must-read for every New Zealander.
Falastin: A Cookbook
By Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley (Ebury Press, $60)
Can you remember a time before the name Yotam Ottolenghi was synonymous with culinary cool? Jerusalem, the 2012 book he wrote with long-time business partner Sami Tamimi, is one of my most-used, most-read cookbooks. In Falastin, Tamimi (aided by long-time Ottolenghi empire collaborator Tara Wigley) picks up the tale and tells it from the Palestinian point of view. This is a story of extraordinary people as well as place - so we meet "the yoghurt-making ladies of Bethlehem", a woman who cooks in a refugee camp, makers of tahini and olive oil; and the founder of the Palestinian Seed Library, among others. And the food! Vibrant, colourful, exuberant, generous - and for the most part, not using any difficult-to-find ingredients. A joy to read, even if you just look at the pictures.
By Bill Granger (Murdoch Books, $55)
While Covid-19 renders Australia far away, so close, this book is a tantalising reminder of what's waiting across the ditch. Bill Granger is the Sydney restaurateur famously credited with "inventing" avocado on toast (much to the chagrin of his teenage daughters). In Australia, at least, his name is synonymous with a certain kind of relaxed cafe cool - Granger's food is the stuff you eat in your idealised dream life. Australian Food speaks to this reputation and backs it up in spades: think grilled cheese and kimchi open sandwiches, masala snapper with cumin roast tomatoes, miso roast beef with ginger and spring onion dressing, pineapple lamingtons. Advance, Australian fare, this one's a beaut.
Simply: Easy Everyday Dishes
By Sabrina Ghayour (Octopus/Mitchell Beazley, $45)
I'd recommend buying this book on the strength of one single recipe (the tomato, peanut and tamarind salad) alone. If that's not enough to sway you, surely Sabrina Ghayour's other easily achievable and interesting dishes will. Ghayour, who has drawn on her Iranian heritage for this and her four previous bestselling books, has a great understanding of the needs of home cooks. Her recipes are interesting and pack a lot of flavour but they're not fiddly. A great book if you're in a bit of a culinary rut but don't necessarily have huge amounts of time to spend in the kitchen.
In Praise of Veg: A Modern Kitchen Companion
By Alice Zaslavsky (Murdoch Books, $70)
I recently overheard a young woman confessing to her friend that she wasn't a vegetarian any more ("because I also need to be gluten-free and gluten-free vegetarian food is gross"). At the time I resisted giving her some helpful advice but, in hindsight, I wish I'd had a copy of this eminently useful and inspiring book to pass on instead. Australian food writer Alice Zaslavsky covers all the basics, with sound, unpatronising advice for new cooks and lots of clever ideas for seasoned ones. At $70 it's an investment buy - but it'll save you cash in the long run. A must for anyone who wants to get more out of their vegetable drawer.
By Sarah Tuck (From The Kitchen, $65)
After feeling thoroughly disheartened by a stack of aspirational lifestyle cookbooks (general gist: "drink a fancy smoothie, lose weight, waft about in white linen"), Stuck Together landed on my desk with a satisfying thud. Sarah Tuck's been through the wringer in recent years (she wrote her first book, Coming Unstuck, as a response to a marriage break-up) and she knows a thing or two about comfort food. As editor of Dish magazine, she's got a sharp sense of what people like to eat and let me tell you, it ain't raw smoothies. This is the cookbook you wish you'd had in lockdown. Better get a copy for next time round.
The Flavour Thesaurus: 10th Anniversary Edition
By Niki Segnit (Bloomsbury, $50)
This isn't strictly a new book but it's been reissued for its 10th anniversary and I'm including it here because I strongly believe everyone with an interest in food should have a copy. It passes the true test of any cookbook - the format means you can comfortably read it in bed - and it's funny, informative and hugely useful. If you've ever stood in front of the fridge and thought, "What on earth shall I put with that?" this is the book for you.
The best coffee table books of 2020
Coffee-table books to add to your collection this Christmas.
Wes Anderson: The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work
By Ian Nathan (Quarto, $55)
This deep dive into writer/director Wes Anderson's filmography is as meticulous and well presented as one of its subject's films. Ian Nathan, former editor of movie mag Empire and writer of books on other modern auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, brings vast insight and heavy research to Anderson's work.
Starting with his 1996 debut Bottle Rocket and going right through to the upcoming The French Dispatch, Nathan details the genesis, inspiration and production of each of Anderson's 10 films and its relation to his life at the time and, as is often the case, his past.
The book is beautifully illustrated with an abundance of on-set photos, movie stills and poster art and full of detail, meaningful trivia and thoughtful analysis, all backed up by an extensive bibliography.
Naturally, a delight for fans of Anderson, it's also a pleasure to read with Nathan feeding you sentences like, "It was full of outrageous, teeth-itchingly embarrassing behaviour".
- Reviewed by Karl Puschmann
Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics
By Dolly Parton with Robert K. Oermann (Hodder and Stoughton, $70)
You don't need to be a Dolly fan to appreciate this big-hearted book of songs and memorabilia - but I challenge anyone to resist her charms once they have flicked through its pages.
A songwriter first and foremost, Parton has penned more than 3000 in her nearly 70 years of writing - starting with an ode to her corncob doll, composed when she was 6. In this richly illustrated tribute, she shares photos of her Tennessee childhood home, outrageous stage costumes, publicity-shy husband Carl Dean and guitar collection. But more significantly, given her status as a hitmaking genius, she explains her inspiration for 175 songs including the iconic Jolene (partly inspired by Carl flirting with "a girl down at the bank") , 9 to 5 (written on the set of the movie while tapping her fingernails to keep time) and I Will Always Love You (about longtime collaborator Porter Wagoner). She also writes of being underestimated for decades because she was a poor "Backwoods Barbie". "I might look artificial and corny to you. You might think I have no taste. But underneath the look is a person. There's a brain and a heart underneath the hair and the boobs."
- Reviewed by Eleanor Black
Drawn to the Wild: Paintings of New Zealand Birds
By Nicolas Dillon (Potton & Burton, $60)
"Are you still painting birds?" people ask wildlife painter Nicolas Dillon, as if he should have moved on by now. Thank goodness he hasn't. This exquisite collection captures the fragility, the eccentricity and the majesty of the creatures that inhabit our skies, coastline, sandspits and waterways.
Dillon has been drawing birds since he was six – two early works are reproduced here. In the short commentaries that accompany each painting, it's the subtleties of colour he is often drawn to most vividly: the burnt-sienna of the male dotterel's breast feathers; the whio's golden eyes echoing the yellowing beech leaves caught amongst the moss.
After formative years in England and Europe, his home territory today is the Wairau Plain – coming full circle back to Marlborough, where he grew up on a farm in the Waihopai Valley. For a birder, it's rich pickings. And Dillon has never lost his sense of awe. "Through birds," he writes, "I come closest to the soul of the environment."
- Reviewed by Joanna Wane
By Grahame Sydney, Brian Turner & Owen Marshall (Penguin Random House, $75)
New Zealand has 15,000km of coastline, but this is another love letter to the raw, landlocked beauty of Central Otago, with its "clear, hard, sharp light in the grandest blue skies of all". Featuring some previously unpublished work, Landmarks celebrates not only a love of the landscape but four decades of friendship between three of our most singular literary and artistic treasures.
The trio first's collaboration, Timeless Land, published in 1995, was – somewhat unexpectedly – a raging success. A painter (Sydney), a poet (Turner) and a writer of prose (Marshall) – but really, all are philosophers at heart. Now in their 70s, their work is imbued with the melancholy that comes in life when more time is spent reflecting on the past than looking to the future.
There's some anger in that – the damage to the environment, the "greening" of the land through intensive dairy farming – but humour, too. Turner again, in "Autumn Nor'wester": 'She's a good one,' my mate says, 'hang on to your undies.'
- Reviewed by Joanna Wane
Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! Animal Poems
Selected by Fiona Waters, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup (Nosy Crow, $55)
This book doesn't talk down to kids. I like that about it. It tells them it's ok to not know what a poem is "about". Poems are things you can get lost in. I don't know; I'm no educationalist or talkback caller, but maybe we spend too much time teaching kids how not to get lost.
Two or three poems - sometimes one, sometimes four - appear on each page. They typically congeal around a single animal or collection of related animals. Britta Teckentrup's quiet, wistful illustrations, with their muted palette, are as open and generous as the poems around which they appear. Poets include Blake, Byron, Margaret Mahy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Carol Ann Duffy, Ted Hughes, Paula Green and a couple of hundred others.
Some of the poems are silly and light, and some of them are deep and full of provocative, metaphysical space. Mostly, they're short and affecting. A good poem immediately puts you somewhere new, emotionally, and this book is packed with good poems. For adults, they will evoke the past. For children: they will help create it.
- Reviewed by Greg Bruce
Railways Studios: How a Government Design Studio Helped Build New Zealand
By Peter Alsop, Neill Atkinson, Katherine Milburn and Richard Wolfe (Te Papa Press, $70)
From 1920 to 1987, the government's railways department owned and operated its own design agency. Rarely in the history of business can two less synergistic operations have co-existed, but it obviously made enough sense to last 67 years and to produce enough intriguing material to lead to the creation of a book of richly evocative images advertising and promoting New Zealand, New Zealanders and New Zealand's products and services. Some of the ads are beautiful, some preposterous, some both.
One poster shows a beautifully hand painted river vista, over which is written: "The Wanganui River New Zealand's 'Grand Canyon'", and "NEW ZEALAND'S PARAMOUNT TOURIST ATTRACTION". The images, providing a pictorial history of the country as it saw itself through the 20th century, are the stars, but the first half of the book also contains plenty of text, embedding the project in a wider social history of the country. Come for the pictures, stay for the prominent historians' words, come back for the pictures.
- Reviewed by Greg Bruce
Wonderland: The New Zealand Photographs of Whites Aviation
By Peter Alsop (Potton & Burton, $50)
A mix of art, craft, nostalgia and curiosity piece, hand-coloured photographs brought a splash of post-World War II modernism into many New Zealand homes.
The process involved a delicate, intricate touch and exacting replication of colour, which was applied using a thin stick wrapped with cotton wool rather than a paintbrush. As with much women's work, it's a skill that has been largely under-rated. In 1963, one large photograph of Lake Taupō worked on by four "colouring girls" took nine days to complete.
Whites Aviation, founded in downtown Auckland in 1945, specialised in aerial photography, and their hand-coloured images have become collectibles. Wonderland, a condensed selection of landscapes from Alsop's popular 2016 book Hand-Coloured New Zealand, is geographically arranged from Northland to Rakiura/Stewart Island, and includes some colourful profiles of the era's key figures.
- Reviewed by Joanna Wane