In 2020 I set myself the challenge of reading more fiction (in troubling times it relaxes me) and making more of that reading by New Zealand authors (support local!), and reading more work by Māori authors too.
This has meant that I've read a little outside my usual comforting bubble of fantasy and sci-fi and expanded into different genres (like crime/mystery), audiences (I read several YA novels) and format - I've read more in eBook format this year than I usually would. For the latter I've found Wheelers eBooks app really useful. Though I generally prefer the experience of a printed book, sometimes I'd find myself, of an evening (or during lockdown), with nothing to read and the library closed so an eBook was a good fallback option. Wheelers also have a great selection of New Zealand fiction, so it was the obvious choice over OverDrive (which though great, doesn't have as many local authors represented).
I had a few books in mind when I started in January but for the most part I've just picked things up, either as they were published, or on a whim.
And without really intending to, I've found that this preference for New Zealand and Māori authors has leaked into my picks for bedtime reading with my son too, so he's getting exposed to books and stories featuring people and places that reflect his world. And as I mentioned earlier, I branched out into reading some YA fiction (I'll do a separate post on my homegrown Kids and YA reads for the year).
Below is a list of all the New Zealander-authored books I've read this year, with a quick summary of what they were like.
Kokopu dreams and Shadow waters - Author, Chris Baker died in 2003 and so the third book of his planned trilogy never made it to publication. It's a shame, because the first two instalments are great. In the first book, Kokopu dreams, we follow Sean as he wakes to the realisation that a mutated calicivirus has laid waste to the country and among the casualties are his wife and stepchildren. It's a strong, Walking Dead-like opening which then becomes a vision quest as Sean makes his way down the country on horseback, doing his best to avoid packs of feral dogs and other older, more mythological dangers.
The story continues in Shadow waters which largely follows a couple of side characters from the first book and expands the role (and menace) of the supernatural characters in the first outing, as well as introducing humans with powers of their own who band together to fight the encroaching dark. Lots of action, and a believable, well-drawn South Island setting.
A madness of sunshine - Nalini Singh is the author of hugely popular urban fantasy titles and this is her first mystery outing. Set in a small town on the West Coast, it follows Anahera, a woman with a tragic past, and an equally tragic present, who after living in London for a number of years returns to her hometown. In the tradition of great mysteries you soon find yourself suspecting EVERYONE at least a little bit. A good, satisfying read that accurately captures the ruggedness and remoteness of a small town community on the West Coast.
The luminaries - Famously the doorstop book that a great number of people (including myself) took a loooong time to finish. For me it was 6 years. But, spurred on by the imminent television adaptation, I ploughed through. A vividly imagined, twisted tale of deception, greed, and ultimately, love. Strong on scene-setting, and every character is precisely drawn - though I have to admit, I got a bit lost in the plot at times.
Wake - Like Kokopu dreams, the opening chapters of Wake leave you in shock with its grim and gruelling action, but this time it's not a disease killing everyone, it's some unknown influence that drives the occupants of the settlement of Kahukura in Tasman Bay to bloodthirsty and murderous violence. And then the survivors have to contend with something even worse - they're trapped by an inpenetrable force-field and something otherworldly is in there with them. Elizabeth Knox explores the frailty of human connection as her survivors struggle to stay safe, and protect one another from an invisible threat.
No man's land - Christchurch author, A. J. Fitzwater blends a real historical setting (WWII land girls in Otago) with fantastical elements (shapeshifter characters) to tell the story of Dorothea "Tea" Gray, a young woman whose journey of self-discovery is more surprising than most. Well-paced and highly readable, it's an epic tale of love and determination.
The absolute book - Elizabeth Knox's 'intimate epic' is lush and mesmerising. Leave the real world behind and fall into fairy land.
- Read my interview with Elizabeth Knox about The absolute book
- Read my report back from Elizabeth Knox's WORD Christchurch session about the book
The swimmers - This debut novel from now Christchurch resident, Chloë Lane, is a wonderfully well observed and follows Erin as she returns to the family farm for what she thinks is just a long weekend visit with her mother, but what is an extremely difficult, awkward and poignant saying goodbye as it eventuates that her mother has decided to end the life that's slowly being taken from her by motor neuron disease. It sounds grim, and it is, but it's also funny and very real.
Chappy - Patricia Grace tells a story of separation (from your homeland, from your loved ones) and love. Chappy is a Japanese stowaway who is adopted by a Māori family, and we are told his story by the people who loved him as they relay it to the grandson whom he never knew. Grace beautifully captures a sense of time and place as the story unfolds, so if you like evocative settings and a cast of flawed but loveable characters this might be a good one to try.
The girl in the mirror - The buzz about the debut from Rose Carlyle is unprecedented for a New Zealand novel (the holds list is sizeable, but less so on Wheelers) - it's been snapped up for a movie deal and US publication. But is it any good? Well, it is certainly a fun, and gripping read. Summer and Iris are mirror image twins, but there are insecurities aplenty on the side of Iris, the less charismatic twin, and an inheritance with strings attached just adds to the complicated web of mistrust, greed and deceit. Throw in international travel (by yacht), a sexy brother-in-law, and a manipulative step-mother, and lets just say there's trouble at sea. I didn't find the characters particularly believable in certain places (and the plot pretty much went where I expected it to) but it's still a suspenseful and diverting read. If you loved reading trashy Judith Krantz novels or the Lace series by Shirley Conran in the 80s you're sure to enjoy this too.
The wild card - New Zealand playwright and author Renée is 91 and this is her first go at crime fiction, which just goes to show you definitely can teach an old dog new tricks. It's a story that has a few threads running through it, one being the latest production of The importance of being Ernest by a smalltown repertory theatre in the North Island (think Kāpiti Coast), but foremost is writer (and cast member) Ruby Palmer's search not only for clues as to her parentage (she was abandoned in a kete at the local children's home as a baby), but to uncover the secrets that lead to the death of her friend and protector at the home, an older girl named Betty. There's a large cast of characters in the book (so much so that I lost a few of them in the course of reading), and Renée makes it clear, through Ruby and Betty's stories, what her thoughts are on the mistreatment of children in state care, and the lack of consequences for the perpetrators. Also, there's a bit of romance, secrets to be unburied, and Oscar Wilde quotes for every chapter. A gripping and satisfying read.
Mansfield and me - A graphic novel, so not technically fiction, but I feel like it fits here. Sarah Laing weaves her own life story along that of Katherine Mansfield's. There is truth, difficulty, and finding one's way, with creativity and writing as an anchoring point in the maelstrom.
The stone wētā - This one's a slight cheat in that I am *checks Wheelers app* only 31.8% through Octavia Cade's eco-fiction debut. It's a sort of a spy drama but with scientists sharing and protecting climate change data and I don't know what's going to happen but there's already been one death and some potential space sabotage so things have started to get Pretty Interesting...
Still on my "to read" list for the rest of 2020
- Rangatira - For some reason I have not read any Paula Morris before (a short story or two aside) which seems like an oversight.
- Monsters in the Garden - I have already heard some readings from this Sci-fi and fantasy anthology at WORD Christchurch and it has whetted my appetite for more.