Canvas asked four reviewers to share their reads of the year.
READING TO ESCAPE
This year I've approached reading as a refuge and escape. I've always liked reading photographer Cecil Beaton's gossipy diaries, and this year have been dipping into The Glass of Fashion (Rizzoli, $70), first published in 1954 and described by Beaton as a "personal history of 50 years of changing tastes and the people who have inspired them". Many of these people are now obscure — Edwardian actresses, American heiresses, Italian nobility — but some names still resonate. Greta Garbo's "sartorial tastes combine those of the highwayman and Robin Hood with ancient Greece". At night the Queen Mother looks like "a spangled fairy doll on top of a Christmas tree". Cole Porter is so stylish that even "his efficiency is fashionable: cigarette lighters work at the first click".
After almost two years without overseas travel, I also like to make a virtual escape to Korea (and now review Korean film and television at my site, koreaseen.com). My birthday present last year was Korean History in Maps: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, $71) and I refer to this constantly, looking for context for the films I watch — from the late 16th century Japanese invasions of The Admiral: Roaring Currents to the contemporary tensions with North Korea explored in Steel Rain.
Last month I re-read Robin Hyde's classic novel The Godwits Fly (AUP, $35), her almost entirely true account of growing up in the teens and 20s in New Zealand. It was first published in 1938, when Hyde — real name: Iris Wilkinson — was 32. I was talking about it on the UK podcast Backlisted and was entranced again by her vivid descriptions of a half-wild Wellington of shabby rental houses and patriotic fervour.
The novel ends not long after protagonist Eliza, not quite 21, gives birth — in Sydney, in secret — to a stillborn baby, just as Iris did. From that lost child, named Christopher Robin Hyde, the writer took what she called her "nom de guerre". Hyde wrote most of the novel while living in the "Grey Lodge" on the grounds of the old Avondale Mental Hospital, now the Unitec campus. You can still see the house, and peer up at the attic window: the attic was where Hyde wrote a number of books, including the terrific Passport to Hell, about the ordinary New Zealanders fighting in the trenches in Gallipoli and the Somme.
I also recommend two debuts that were published during lockdown. Angelique Kasmara's first novel, Isobar Precinct (Cuba Press, $37), is a stylish, unique take on contemporary Auckland, from K Rd to Lincoln Rd, via the cemetery under Grafton Bridge, the City Mission, and the tattoo parlour where the main character, an Indonesian New Zealander named Lestari, is beset by burglaries. In this literary thriller Lestari starts making connections between the disappearance, years earlier, of her father, and experimental drug trials with the power to distort time. Kasmara is a major new talent, adept at both realism and speculative fiction.
Another new talent: Jack Remiel Cottrell, whose Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson and other very short stories (Canterbury University Press, $30) is a sharp, satirical and confident romp through various genres in a range of flash fiction. Before I read Cottrell's work, I wouldn't have believed it possible to enjoy a book of stories about cricket, rugby refereeing, ghosts, robots, and terrorism—sometimes in the shape of letters, forms or lists — but I promise you: this is brilliant. From the story New Zealand Gothic: "You glance at listings of vacant houses to rent. The moment you look closer they are occupied. They have always been occupied." This is surreal summer reading for our strange times.
- by Paula Morris
Helen Garner's How to End a Story: Diaries 1995-1998 (Text, $37) is indisputably the most revealing and honest book published in 2021. The Australian author, after making her name as a novelist and short-story writer, turned to non-fiction, controversially reporting on a case of sexual harassment at the University of Melbourne, then murder, exposing some of the key issues of our times as seen through a personal and involved lens.
How To End a Story is the third volume of her published journals and details the breakdown of her marriage to novelist Murray Bail. The book's frankness, pitiless self-scrutiny, and personal exposure make it profound reading, widening the ways each of us must face ourselves.
2021 was a year of books related to literature, like the notebooks of the suspense writer Patricia Highsmith, and for author biographies, including the mysterious Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa. However, Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald (Bloomsbury, $70) by Carole Angier speaks to many things. It is the first life of the inscrutable German-born novelist who died in 2001. His books, including Austerlitz and The Emigrants, were scattered with enigmatic found photographs of their characters and places, with accompanying documents. His plots stand dislocated in soundless landscapes of tourist snapshots and postcards, of hotels, ski resorts, British fens, and abandoned greenhouses. Angier's glimpses of Sebald are the initial biographical framings of a man whose work is emblematic of post-war, post-Holocaust Europe, a world where memory itself is problematic.
Then, in a year of lockdowns, what could be more appropriate than a vastly readable, chunky novel by a Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling American writer about the importance of literature – and the effects of walls. Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr (4th Estate, $35), is set in three different time periods: the fall of Constantinople in 1453, in an Idaho public library in 2020, and on a "space-vessel" sometime in the future. It is a story centred upon the survival of a single work of Greek literature and the effects it has on those around it. Fluent, suspenseful, and filled with facts and mini-narratives, Cloud Cuckoo Land was perfect for the shut-in days – and will survive them.
Lockdown also meant a return to our own bookshelves. For me, the rediscovery of Jean Genet was a renewal of an old love. Originally published in 1943, Genet's first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (Allen & Unwin, $25), was written in Sante Prison where he was serving a sentence for a string of petty thefts.
It is the story of a prisoner, "Jean", who survives solitary by creating a fantasy world set in the Parisian criminal milieu of the late 1930s where Divine, a homosexual "Queen" and prostitute, and her pimp boyfriend meet a young blonde criminal dubbed "Our Lady of the Flowers". It is a rich book, filled with erotic, philosophical, and written triumphs. I had forgotten its power. Genet would go on to write other successful novels and plays, and a non-fiction book on the Palestinians.
Finally, Samuel Te Kani's Please, Call Me Jesus (Dead Bird Books, $35) can lay claim to being the first collection of gay erotica published in New Zealand – except it is much more than mere "one-handed reading". The first story in the book, The Good Boy, is a well-modulated account of a married man's weekend BDSM encounter with another man when his wife is away – with a real wallop in its tail. It is not for the prudish or the faint-hearted. Te Kani easily traverses material ranging from the gothic to apocalyptic sci-fi, with crystalline prose. He will be a talent worth following.
- by David Herkt
The Foghorn's Lament
by Jennifer Lucy Allan
(White Rabbit Books, $45)
Not only was this my most anticipated book of 2021, it completely delivered and is my book of the year. It's an enthralling study where heavy weather, maritime history, the natural world, industrialisation, landscape, music, sound and culture intersect. The Foghorn's Lament is a compelling investigation by music journalist and broadcaster Jennifer Lucy Allan into the history of the foghorn - that colossal device that uses blasts of sound to warn vehicles of navigational hazards such as rocky coastlines and other vessels in conditions where lighthouses are obscured by fog. Travelling to San Francisco, Cornwall and to Shetland (for a month-long stay alone in a lighthouse under brutal weather conditions to experience these monoliths up close), Allan's book is a fascinating tribute to the sheer emotional power and force of the foghorn as not just a piece of engineering but an intriguing conduit of sound.
A Ghost in the Throat
by Doireann Ni Ghriofa
(Tramp Press, $38)
The Sunday Times (UK) called this electric prose debut from Irish poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa "one of the best books of this dreadful year." Ni Ghriofa became intrigued by 18th century Irish writer and noblewoman Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, who in 1773 composed Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire or The Lament for Art O Laoghaire, an Irish keen or lament for her husband after he was murdered by a British official while she was pregnant with their third child. While the lament has been hailed as the greatest poem of its century from Britain or Ireland, Ni Ghriofa found there was so little information available about Dubh Ni Chonaill it was as if she had been erased from history. Alongside a translation of the enchanting poem, A Ghost in the Throat also documents Ni Ghriofa's quest to unearth more of Ni Chonaill's backstory. The result is this bewitching quicksilver mix of memoir and autofiction which is immersive and bracing.
by Deborah Levy
(Hamish Hamilton, $26)
Each book in Deborah Levy's "living autobiography" is a masterclass in memoir writing where she examines different decades of her life: Things I Don't Want to Know deals with her 40s, The Cost of Living, her 50s and now with Real Estate she turns her crystalline gaze to scrutinise her life in her 60s. While this is the satisfying third and final instalment, each book stands alone and can be read out of sequence. Short and swift but generous in its insights, this is at once a feminist manifesto and exploration of the dualities of being a woman and a writer, the precarity of housing (she rents), the moody politics of living spaces, and the murky navigation of rebuilding a life after divorce. Wise and funny, Levy's singular voice is acutely present on these pages and her constant observing and thinking is a gift to the reader.
by Katie Kitamura
(Jonathan Cape, $35)
Katie Kitamura is an art critic, journalist and novelist whose last novel, A Separation, was one of the best luxurious holiday reads of 2017 for fans of Elena Ferrante, Deborah Levy and Vendela Vida. She's back this year with another perfect literary read for summer.
An unnamed woman who works as an interpreter flees her life and work at the International Court in New York to The Hague, where as an outsider searching for a sense of belonging, she discovers that her boyfriend is married and her friend is in trouble. A juicy and stylish novel with thriller leanings, Intimacies takes on an undercurrent of mystery when the interpreter takes on work for a former president who is entangled in a war crimes scandal.
Bolt from the Blue
by Jeremy Cooper
(Fitzcarraldo Editions, $31)
Fitzcarraldo Editions is my favourite publisher and I'll read anything on their exquisitely curated list. The mother-daughter relationship has been well-mined in literature but Jeremy Cooper's expansive novel is a startlingly fresh take on this endlessly fascinating and often complex dynamic. Charting the relationship between a mother and her daughter Lynn over about 30 years, Bolt from the Blue takes an epistolary form, shaped from a series of exchanged letters, postcards and emails which are compelling to devour. Beginning in 1985 when Lynn leaves her suburban Birmingham home to study at Saint Martin's School of Art, the book follows her rise to success in the Young British Artists scene in London. A quiet and beautifully observed novel, melancholiv and tender.
- by Kiran Dass
BOOKS TO THRILL
by Laura Lippman
(Faber Fiction, $33)
Laura Lippman can always be relied on to turn in a sharp, stylish thriller but Dream Girl is Lippman unfurled, timely and pointed. It's also a novel that seems to have slipped under the radar. Lippman's having fun here. Influenced by Stephen King's Misery, this centres around a successful (read entitled) novelist with a complicated love life (shades of Philip Roth) who's confined to his luxurious Baltimore apartment after an accident where he's attended to by two female assistants.
Lippman folds in cancel culture, #MeToo, literary gossip and a Jay McInerney-like 90's backstory. If she slowly skewers her mansplaining lead character - who narrates throughout - she also gives him some of the best lines. "There comes a moment in life when everything is the road not taken, when it's just fork after fork after fork."
She's a Killer
by Kirsten McDougall
I enjoyed Kirsten McDougall's previous novel, Tess, a gothic love story, but nothing prepared me for the wonder that is She's a Killer. Set in a dystopian near-future when New Zealand has become a bolt-hole for rich foreigners, She's a Killer does the impossible - tackles serious issues like class conflict, mental health, over-consumption and a growing climate crisis, melding them into a compelling page-turner that's as funny as it is frightening.
McDougall took five months' unpaid leave from her publicity job to work on the novel, writing most of it in just four months - and that sustained energy is evident in the smart, electric prose.
In a year of great local crime fiction - Jacqueline Bublitz's superb debut Before You Knew My Name, J.P. Pomare's chilling The Last Guests, and Ben Sanders' tough noir The Devils You Know - McDougall's was the surprise latecomer. It's quite a ride.
by S.A. Cosby
The elevator pitch for this might be a "woke pulp novel", where two oddly matched men in late middle age - one white, one black - embark on a quest for justice on behalf of their gay sons - a couple - who've been murdered.
Neither are father-of-the-year material, mind; one's an alcoholic, the other an ex-con and both men disowned their sons because of their sexuality while they were alive. S.A. Cosby mixes episodes of gritty violence with quieter moments that reveal the men understand that their late-life awakening can't undo years of taught bigotry and abuse or absolve them of their sins.
It's another tour-de-force from Cosby; one of the most exciting talents working in crime fiction. Track it down.
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle for Domination
by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang
(Little Brown, $38)
As you may have gathered, my go-to genre is crime fiction but there's plenty of corporate carnage in this brilliantly researched peek into Mark Zuckerberg's embattled, trillion dollar social media company. New York Times journos Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang dissect the profit-first Facebook mindset, focusing on the fraught period between 2016-2020.
That corporate philosophy has cost lives and quite a few elections.
The authors drill down into the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Myanmar massacre in 2016 – where members of the Myanmar military used Facebook as a tool in the Government's campaign of ethnic cleansing against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority - a fact Facebook knew of but did little to stop.
This came out in July and the horror that is Facebook - sorry, Meta - only gets worse.
by Marcel Proust
Lockdown and a change in circumstances meant I had plenty of time on my hands this year. I filled much of that by re-reading Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The final volume, Time Regained, is the moving summation of his dense, multi-volume epic.
It's Proust; not a lot happens. Our narrator, who's been at a sanatorium and away from high society returns, as bombs drop on Paris, to find everything changed. The book revolves around one party. There he finds the cool people aren't cool anymore, everyone's old, figures of ridicule a few years back now hold great sway, women he once loved he doesn't even recognise, and he sees his own age reflected in the way people react to him.
Still, the party gives him the resolve to sit down and write the book you're reading. Almost a century later, it's just as magnificent.
- by Greg Fleming