ReadingRoom

Xmas: the 10 best novels of 2019

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias selects the 10 best New Zealand novels of 2019.

The two best novels of the year were by one woman who is likely our most distinguished or garlanded writer, someone who is at the very centre of literary life, and another woman who came out with her first novel and lives on a distant shore, away from any kind of literary establishment. Their books were wildly different - one fantasy, one hardcore social realism - but copies of both The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox and Auē by Westport writer Becky Manawatu fairly flew out of the shops.

In essence, Knox - who won the Prime Minister's award for fiction this year, and is hot favourite to take out the 2020 Ockham national book award - writes the craziest motherf*#king fantasies. The Absolute Book was a fantasia of demons, talking birds, etc. You might anticipate that a social realist writer such as Charlotte Grimshaw would run screaming from Knox's latest novel, but she gave it a rave review in the Listener. One thing about Knox is that she's so damned readable. As for Becky Manawatu's Auē, it was set in gang houses and bad-ass bars, and told the story of a Māori family torn apart by violence. It's a bravura performance, intensely felt, with beautiful writing and a wonderful ear for language.

There were other first-rate books. Carl Shuker, probably our most literary novelist, ie someone who has read, absorbed, and understood the world's most difficult writers (Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace), returned after a long absence with his most straightforward novel. A Mistake told the story of a brilliant surgeon and the consequences of a patient death. Shuker being Shuker, he weaved in a sub-narrative about the Challenger space shuttle disaster, which was heavy on the metaphor and yet it earned its place, it wasn't cleverness for its own sake, and his "short, scalpel-sharp tale", as Diana Wichtel described it in the Listener, raced along.

Then there were the novels which set out to entertain, and they duly entertained: When It All Went to Custard by Danielle Hawkins was a number one best-seller for months, the paranormal romance Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh was read around the world, and Nicky Pellegrino's book A Dream Of Italy remained in the top 10 best-seller chart for almost the entire year. They're good books by good writers. So are the rest of the books I've chosen (with thanks to reviews which have appeared in the Listener, Landfall, New Zealand Booklovers, Sydney Morning Herald and a blog in Utah) in the inaugural ReadingRoom best 10 novels of the year list (ordered alphabetically under author). By all means go and buy for Christmas or as a summer read, they're all safe bets.

When It All Went to Custard by Danielle Hawkins (HarperCollins, $35)

Hamilton journalist Oskar Howell, from his profile of Otorohonga author Danielle Hawkins at ReadingRoom: A story of betrayal and struggle, the novel follows the main character Jenny, after she gives her cheating husband the boot and juggles a sheep farm, council job and a coterie of well-meaning friends, all the while looking after her two children Lily and Nathan. Jenny can never seem to catch a break. The bills begin to stack, the useless advice from friends stacks even higher and the troubles never seem to leave her side – just like her loyal dog Tessa.

Hawkins writes knowingly of the fresh mornings, the freezing rain, and the rolling hills and gullies of the fictional settlement of Tipoi – a town which is half Te Kuiti, half Putaruru. Throughout, Hawkins’ novel is written in the kind of hushed voice, quiet chit-chat style that New Zealanders do so well.

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35)

Victoria University academic Jane Stafford, from her review of the Wellington writer's book, at ReadingRoom: It begins within the norms of realism. Taryn Cornick is the author of a globally successful book about the lost and destroyed libraries of history. She is also the survivor of tragedy, her sister Bea, some years before, being the victim of an inexplicable and random murder. When Taryn is offered the chance of revenge, brutal and extra-judicial, she accepts.

But there is another world operating alongside Taryn’s recognisable world of family, work, and literary festivals. Taryn is possessed by a demon while driving along a country road; those fleeing a forest fire are suddenly protected by a plume of water which envelops and shields them as the forest is consumed; Taryn visits Purgatory, arid and featureless but with a hospital and a railway system, to find and question her dead mother. Landscapes shift; birds talk; magic, termed as "makings", provide ingenious forms of support for material life – cooking, home maintenance, care for the injured; and there are glamour spells which seduce and entrance.

There are literary echoes – Tolkien without the pomposity, CS Lewis for adults, and especially Ursula Le Guin, with her ability to present articulated, comprehensive new worlds. She would have loved this book.

Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $35)

From an essay by the Westport author, at ReadingRoom: People have asked me about my gang research. I told them that I imagined a man who was given no love - which is not to say all gang members are drawn to a gang for lack of love. I imagined him not as a quintessential gang member and not as the stereotype of every gang member, but just as a fucked-up guy who could, in a mythical gang-like house, become someone’s worst nightmare.

I asked myself questions about this man: what if he got on the gear? What if he wanted to feel powerful more than anything else? What if he ensured his Mrs couldn’t get a cent, bar through him?

How would that make him behave? What if he could get hold of some smack? How would he feel about that when none of the other mythical gang members had the balls or brains or means to get hold of some smack? What if his woman is the thing he is afraid of the most in the whole world - not machetes or guns but her wahine beauty? What if she's the most beautiful thing he ever saw and he'd rather she were dead than anyone touch her?

A Dream of Italy by Nicky Pellegrino (Hachette, $24.99)

Auckland doctoral candidate Azariah Alfante, from her review of the Auckland writer's book, at NZ Booklovers: Bestselling author Nicky Pellegrino’s novel A Dream of Italy is a celebration of some of the most delightful things in life: travel, food, and love. Salvio Valentini, mayor of Montenello in southern Italy, is determined to revive his “ghost town.” He comes up with a simple, albeit ambitious, plan: sell the houses for one euro. In renovating and inhabiting these abodes, the prospective buyers would be contributing to the restoration of the entire mountain town and its future.

The emails start pouring in. In London, the illustrator Mimi Wilson is looking for a change. Recently divorced, and with her sons now at university, she comes across a newspaper article about Salvio’s proposal for Montenello. The same advertisement reaches Edward Roberts in Sydney, who loves all things Italian, while his Italian partner, Gino Mancuso, does not. For the young relief teacher Elise Hartman, who lives with her partner Richard Lynch in Bristol, Montenello might just be the chance to get on the property ladder. All three look towards this curious, historical town for a fresh, new start.

Pellegrino weaves together the details of Italian life through the eyes of locals and foreigners, describing the unique gastronomic offerings of the local trattoria, a traditional Italian eatery. This is rich and tasteful storytelling.

Call Me Evie by JP Pomare (Hachette, $24.99)

Sue Turnbull, from her review of the expatriate Kiwi's book, in the Sydney Morning Herald: It begins with a troubling scene of domestic violence. A young woman is in a bathroom hacking at her long hair with a pair of tiny scissors. She is interrupted by an angry man who attempts to finish the job with a pair of hair clippers. She makes a run for the front door, but he stops her, dragging her back to the bathroom to finish the job. She screams. He hits her. He calls her Kate but also "darling"; their relationship is unclear. Exactly what this might be and why this couple are hiding in a remote house somewhere in New Zealand will gradually emerge.

Call Me Evie might best be described as a psychological thriller with shades of domestic noir. It’s intricately structured book with chapters marked as either "before " or "after". While the "after" deals with Evie/Kate's experience in New Zealand as she plots to escape the captor she calls Jim, the "before”  recalls her teenage life in suburban Melbourne as she negotiates the rituals of friendship, first love and managing life in the intermittent care of her wealthy, former rugby star father. Told mainly from Kate's point of view, this is a story about adolescent rites of passage. It’s an  an impressive debut for New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based author.

The Wild Card by Renée (The Cuba Press, $35)

From an essay by the Otaki author, at ReadingRoom: If it hadn’t been for my mother Rose I’d have been a state ward. When my father shot himself he knew she was living in a house that went with the job. He knew if he wasn’t there doing the job she’d be evicted. He knew she had no money. He knew she was Māori. His mother had said to him, "If you marry that Māori girl, I’ll never see you again." She died a couple of years before he did but two of his brothers ignored their mother’s racism and were generally around on their days off. One of them supplied wood and they both stole fruit for us. But no good going over old ground, right?

Wrong. I had to go over this old ground when I decided to write my crime novel The Wild Card. No escape. No flinching. Full-on stare, okay?

A Mistake by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press, $30)

Auckland journalist and author Diana Wichtel, from her profile of Wellington author Carl Shuker in the New Zealand Listener: At 42, Elizabeth Taylor is the youngest and sole female consultant general surgeon in a patriarchal institution. But an operation on a critically ill young woman goes wrong.

Shuker’s short, scalpel-sharp tale of misadventure, medical and moral, is set in a version of Wellington Hospital. The body reading it may soon find itself pumping and flexing uneasily in unison. In the sole, ringing endorsement on the back cover of Shuker’s novel, writer Pip Adam notes that it “feels more like a body than a book – life pumps and glugs and flexes inside its pages”.

Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh (Hachette, $29.99)

Provo, Utah blogger Bonnie Renee, from her review of the Mt Roskill-educated paranormal romance novelist's book, at her blog Addicted To Romance: Nalini Singh's Wolf Rain begins with our hero, Snowdancer Lieutenant Alexei, who is going on his security rounds. Alexei has never been the same since his brother’s death almost a year ago. And as a changeling, he doesn’t want to risk ever falling in love or finding his true mate because he fears what he will do to them when he turns rogue. What Alexei never planned on is to sense the call of a Psy in grief - and he finds himself drawn to a woman trapped in a cell, mourning the death of her pet cat.

Their romance is slow building, which is what this pairing really needs. They learn about their own capabilities and strengths before the relationship between them escalates.

Nalini Singh builds her imagined world with such clarity and with each book we get a deeper detail. Wolf Rain is a spectacular read that will keep you on the edge from beginning to end.

Loving Sylvie by Elizabeth Smither (Allen & Unwin, $32.99)

Auckland poet Paula Green, from her review of the New Plymouth writer's book, in Landfall: Elizabeth Smither's Loving Sylvie is all about love: about being loved, not being loved, being capable of love. Sylvie gets married in the opening pages, and the first sentence foreshadows the cinematic qualities and melodious writing to come: "On the morning of her wedding, Sylvie Lehmann was rowed across a lake." Sylvie’s grandfather Kit rows her to a small wedding party that includes her grandmother Isobel. Her mother Madeleine, who has been absent most of her life, does not make the occasion. Her stepmother Cora also doesn’t attend the wedding because she is brimming with resentment and coldness towards Sylvie.

Smither builds portraits of three women through gradual revelations. Loving Sylvie is an exquisite, heart-activating read. It draws you in close to maternal relationships, from Madeleine’s yearnings and epiphanies to Sylvie’s own disappointments and joys. It catapults you into how novels matter. The writing is euphonious, restrained and utterly revealing. Each character is scripted in chiaroscuro, the light and dark flickering as the women come into mesmerising view.

Sport 47 edited by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $30)

From my review at ReadingRoom: If you want a map of the smartest new writing in New Zealand, look no further. Although not entirely fiction - the latest issue of the distinguished literary journal includes a lot of poems and some non-fiction stuff - it features the best, most dazzling collection of new short stories published in 2019.

The short story! It's been in the doldrums for far too long. But it made a hell of a comeback this year, with excellent prize money in contests held by the Sunday Star-Times and the University of Waikato, an inevitably uneven but very good anthology of Māori writers in Huia Short Stories 13 (Huia Publishers, $25), and I hit on the not terrible idea to publish a new story every Saturday at ReadingRoom. My choices tend towards the conservative. Sport goes much, much further, and a sexual pastime features in several of the stories: choking, or "breath play" as it was constantly described in a recent murder trial.

There's a lot of sex, generally. The stories I liked most - loved - were by Isabel Haarhaus ("One hand lays a rope across her long soft neck'), Emma Hislop ("She wants to take off her clothes but she forces herself to stay still"), Patrick Hunn ("I blow him in the bedroom"), and, most inventively and compellingly of all, Charlotte Simmonds ("He slams your head against the bed'). A lively, confrontational, brilliant book.

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