1 Jan 2023

Book lovers tell RNZ 'The single best thing I read this year is…'

8:59 pm on 1 January 2023
Woman looking at a large stack on books

Photo: RNZ

Many people like to say they wish they had more time to read. What better time than the summer holidays, when you can chill at the beach and catch up on that thriller your mate's been raving about, or maybe dive into that classic you've been meaning to read?

RNZ asked several of Aotearoa's leading authors, critics and book lovers to recommend the single best book they read in 2022.

Rather than just keeping it to books that came out in 2022, we opened it up for our panel to pick books from any time, because books don't expire. We've got treats from recent New Zealand memoirs to thrilling mid-century fiction and much more.

Stop doom-scrolling and start page-scrolling with these fine recommendations, and happy reading!

Naomi Arnold - Journalist, science writer and author of Southern Nights: The Story of New Zealand's Night Sky

RNZ journalist Naomi Arnold

Naomi Arnold Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Book pick: The Wave: In Pursuit of the Oceans' Greatest Furies (2011), by Susan Casey

Science writer Susan Casey goes big-wave hunting, tracking the history and formation of these apocalyptic monsters that defy the laws of physics, swallowing ships and civilisations in their path. This book still lives with me after reading it earlier this year, and has made me unable to walk along the beach without giving the horizon the side-eye.

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Oceans' Greatest Furies (2011), by Susan Casey.

Photo: Penguin Random House

Specifically, I'm still thinking about the Alaskan cove of Lituya Bay, which in 1958 suffered a massive earthquake that caused one of the largest mega-tsunami ever recorded. A rock- and ice-slide sent a series of giant waves raging through the narrow inlet and out to sea, washing out trees a half-kilometre up the mountainsides.

That wave killed five people, including two who were on a fishing boat. Can you imagine being on a boat in a calm bay at 10pm, suddenly rocked by a earthquake for several minutes, then hearing the booms of 90 million tons of rock plunging into the water, and then maybe glimpsing through the dark an ice-chunked swell hundreds of metres high bearing down on you before your inevitable death? As I say, this book has stuck with me. (Naomi Arnold's website)

Steve Braunias - Journalist and author of The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road among many other books

No caption

Steve Braunias Photo: Fairfax Media New Zealand

Book pick: Alexander Pope (1930) by Edith Sitwell

"Poor little creature!" cries Edith Sitwell in her amazing 1930 biography of Alexander Pope, which I found this year for $5 at Dominion Books on Jervois Rd in Herne Bay, and was the best thing - the best written, the best imagined - I read all year. It was like a spell. I didn't want it to end.

I'd not read either Sitwell or Pope when I came across it and I ended up feeling something for both writers: love. Love for Sitwell's love of Pope, love for Pope's love of language and pretty things in a life that was racked with pain, both physical and emotional. Her book is a defence of Pope. She stands up for him, declares him the finest of men.

He was much hated during his lifetime - a pamphlet denounced him as "a little scurvy Elf…A proud, conceited, peevish Creature" - and hated even more long after he died. "A fiendish monkey," wrote Lytton Strachey. Sitwell will not have it. Her biography is a love letter, with incredible lines on every page: "His memory had gone," she describes a silly old fool known to Pope, "and cold winds whistled through his empty head." Genius, sheer genius.

Mark Broatch - New Zealand Listener books editor

No caption

Photo: Stephen Long

Book pick: Grand (2022), by Noelle McCarthy

One of the conundrums of being literary editor of a magazine that reviews hundreds of books each year is that you don't actually *read* that many books as deeply skim them to assess if they should be reviewed or the author profiled.

Grand (2022), by Noelle McCarthy.

Photo: Penguin Books New Zealand

I'd have to say one of the 2022's very best I did read from cover to cover was Grand by Noelle McCarthy. Set aside its brilliant title; it's a splendidly evocative account of her mother, an absolute character and an alcoholic, but also of mother-daughter tensions, tussles and delights, and of McCarthy herself, a broadcaster - so someone who knows how to spin a yarn - and her own very human struggles with addiction. As she writes of someone else in the book: "Some of the commas are in the wrong place, but I love it."

A couple of others that stayed with me were New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz's Lost & Found, of losing her father and finding a partner, and Sorrow and Bliss, by expat Meg Mason, a novel that shamefully missed the cut in the book awards a couple of years ago. One character is a writer: "That scene and every other seemed to vibrate with brilliance and humour as I typed them. The next day they read like the work of a 15-year-old with encouraging parents."

Dave Cameron - Christchurch's Scorpio Books owner

Book pick: The Reindeer Hunters (2022), by Lars Mytting

I've read a few books over the years but every now and then something stands out as truly exceptional. This year, it was the second novel in The Bell in the Lake trilogy by Lars Mytting, The Reindeer Hunters. It continues the series on beautifully - answering questions raised in the first book and leaving you hungry for the third and final instalment. It can be read as a standalone, but you always get more out of it having read the first.

The Reindeer Hunters (2022), by Lars Mytting.

Photo: The Overlook Press

Set in 1903 in the same fictional village in Norway, the book tells of Pastor Kai Schweigaard wrestling with the consequences of his past. He becomes obsessed with finding the ancient tapestry of a Doomsday vision, believing it will be his redemption. As the legends of the past continue to haunt the village, electricity arrives, and they must learn to live in a new era.

All of Mytting's books have had a profound hold over me. Here in The Reindeer Hunters, his writing is just so evocative - I felt cold reading it in a warm room. The plot is engrossing, but balanced out by many gentle, beautiful moments. It's an intriguing tale of a punishing environment redeemed by moments of startling humanity. A magnificent story about love, sorrow, courage, and learning to embrace change. A trilogy to lose yourself in.

Dr Hinemoa Elder - author of Wawata: Moon Dreaming and Aroha: Māori wisdom for a contented life lived in harmony with our planet

Dr Hinemoa Elder

Dr Hinemoa Elder Photo: Emerge Aotearoa

Book pick: A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna (2022) Nā Melinda Webber rāua ko Te Kapua O'Connor i tuhi

Ka Ngangana Tonu a Hineāmaru: He Kōrero Tuku Iho nō Te Tai Tokerau. (Ko Quinton Hita te kaiwhakamāori)

Manahau katoa ana au ki te āta pānui ki ēnei whakaaro tuku iho o tō tātou ūkaipō, kia whakapakari ai te hā o tō tātou oranga tonutanga. Me te aha anō, e whakahoki ana tātou i te puna hauora o nehe, hei rangitāmiro ki ngā uri o te kōtiu, e pākahukahu ana ki tō tātou mana motuhake, kia ū tātou ki te pā harakeke te whakapuāwai ai. Kua hoko ēnei taonga raumati ahau mā tātou katoa, ko aku kuru pounamu, ko ngā mokopuna kei te haere mai nei ā tōna wā.

A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna (2022) by Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O'Connor.

Photo: Cover art by Shane Cotton and cover design by Duncan Munro

So exciting to pore over these inspiring narratives of our forebears from our home, a source of strengthened collective wellbeing. And what's more, their experiences inform the importance of returning to our ancestors' concepts of health and wellbeing, inextricably linked together as descendents of the north, understanding our place in the world, fuelling action in how we best ensure that our whānau truly flourish today and in the future. I have bought these treasures as summer gifts for us all, my precious kids and moko who will arrive in due course.

Whiti Hereaka - author of this year's Ockham Book Award for fiction for Kurangaituku

Whiti Hereaka

Whiti Hereaka Photo: supplied

Book pick: Cursed Bunny (2017) by Bora Chung

It is very difficult to choose a single book that I've loved this year. Usually when asked what my favourite book is, I answer a bit glibly that it is whatever book I'm currently reading - which is absolutely true! I think a reader must be enamoured with their latest book. It is your intimate companion.

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung.

Photo: Algonquin Books

Of the three books that have cracked my mind open this year, the one that has haunted me is Cursed Bunny, a collection of short stories by Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur). The stories are often surreal and disturbing, and sometimes it felt like I was in a state of waking sleep: dream logic applies in this collection. It's probably fair to say that it is probably not a collection for the squeamish - while it is never "gory" it does feature quite a bit of gore! If you're not up for stories about beings that fashion themselves out of faeces and hair ('The Head') or would rather not read a story that focuses on menstruation and birth control ('The Embodiment') this probably isn't the collection for you. (Whiti Hereaka's website)

Michelle Langstone - actress and author of Times Like These: On Grief, Hope & Remarkable Love

Michelle Langstone

Michelle Langstone. Photo: supplied

Book pic: Deep Water (1957) by Patricia Highsmith

Written more than half a century ago and still crisp, taut and original, Deep Water is a thrilling, mad-as-hell exploration of a marriage gone awry, with the most compelling and terrifying snail-obsessed narrator.

Deep Water (1957) by Patricia Highsmith.

Photo: Norton & Company, Incorporated, W. W.

Vic and Melinda Van Allen have a young daughter, a nice house, an enviable position among their social group, and a very broken marriage. Melinda takes lovers while Vic seethes behind a veneer of easygoing, hapless tolerance. Vic also breeds snails and describes their mating rituals with great detail - a biographical insert from the author, who also bred the shelled gastropods. The snails and their faithful, fruitful mating rituals become a slimy and erotic emblem for what is missing in the Van Allen marriage.

Nobody can write such wonderful and compassionate villains as Highsmith. Just as with Tom Ripley, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the author pushes Vic right to the edge of sanity and accountability, and yet you cheer for his treacherous rebellion. His monstrous behaviour is tempered by the gentle love for his daughter and, yes, I mention them again, his snails. Vic is such a decent psychopath, it's maddening. Melinda is so ghastly, it's enchanting. The entire book is captivating, and the swagger with which Highsmith writes is delicious. I'm going to read every single one of her books during the summer holidays. On a personal note, I also feel vindicated that I've never used snail pellets in my garden: they, like Highsmith, are wonderful, peculiar creatures, deserving of admiration.

Jo McColl - Unity Books Auckland owner and Unity Books Wellington co-owner

Jo McColl at Unity Bookshop

Jo McColl Photo: supplied

Book pick: Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City (2021) by Andrea Elliott

In 2013, Dasani, her seven siblings, and parents were living in a single room inside a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, New York. There was no heating, no operable fire alarms, no cooking facilities in the room, mice and cockroaches in abundance, and uncleaned public bathrooms, which the siblings would clean with stolen janitors' bleach. Neither the public nor the press was allowed access but Andrea Elliott was not to be deterred. Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist at The New York Times, infiltrated the heavily guarded building by supplying a cellphone to Dasani and her mother Chanel so that they could document the squalor inside.

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City (2021) by Andrea Elliott.

Photo: Penguin Random House

So began an eight-year journey for Elliott, as she followed this fiercely proud family and their attempts to navigate their way forward through a world of abject poverty, violence, drug addiction and the systematic racism of the institutions supposedly set up to support them.

This is primarily Dasani's story - a young girl growing up, brilliant, smart, funny and unafraid and living in an appalling environment. But seamlessly intertwined with this is the story of New York City, its history of slaves, its immigration policies, the exclusion of Blacks from real estate, its gentrification of whole neighbourhoods and, under Mayor Bloomberg, the increase of homeless families by 80 percent. Read Invisible Child and you will find yourself on an emotional rollercoaster - heartbreak, outrage, elation and admiration for Dasani and her bolshy, resilient family - and remarkably, ultimately hope.

John Summers - essayist and author of The Commercial Hotel

No caption

John Summers Photo: Ebony Lamb Photography

Book pick: So Long, See You Tomorrow (1979) by William Maxwell

So Long, See You Tomorrow begins with a gravel pit, a swimming hole, a gunshot heard at a distance. That is to say it begins as it continues, in a rural landscape, a childhood landscape, where something terrible has happened.

Our narrator attempts to reconstruct events in his childhood: his and his father's ways of coping with the death of his mother, the murder of a tenant farmer, and his friendship with the son of the murderer.

So Long, See You Tomorrow (1979) by William Maxwell.

Photo: Penguin Random House

You might call it auto-fiction: this narrator is an old man, his mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918, his childhood was spent in a place called Lincoln, Illinois. All points that were true of the author, William Maxwell. In this and other ways, it is a strange little book, almost experimental. Perspectives shift. We see the world as the narrator, as his friend, even for a brief moment as a dog named Trixie.

And yet for all this, it still reads as something plainspoken and simple, and as one of my favourite things: a novel about the lives of boys that offers them its complete sympathy, even allegiance, never forgetting that for a child everything matters as much as everything else. (John Summers' website)

Laura Vincent - writer and poet, author of the cookbook Hungry & Frozen

Laura Vincent

Laura Vincent Photo: Supplied / Instagram

Book pick: The Scarecrow (1963) by Ronald Hugh Morrieson

I spent 2022 doing my Master's in Creative Writing and so read very little that wasn't in service of my thesis, which is a novel manuscript. However, my research happily led me to The Scarecrow by Ronald Hugh Morrieson. We lost him before success found him, but he now enjoys the rare status of having every one of his novels adapted to film.

As someone running on that guinea-pig wheel of "emerging writer", I have great empathy for the undiscovered artist, but one page - one sentence - into The Scarecrow and you know it was destined for greatness within and beyond our shores. Morrieson's writing has a kind of sticky, dizzying, Southern Gothic-via-Taranaki, rollicking, grimy vividness and a stunningly offhanded ear for description - "the puddle was right outside the Federal Hotel and had been the looking-glass of many dissolute visages, many coyly lopsided moons." It's a new favourite, I'm grateful to my supervisor for suggesting it, and I hope somewhere out there Morrieson knows he's appreciated.

Honourable mention goes to the highly edifying Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan, another from my research list; and my one non-thesis treat this year, Echidna by essa mae ranapiri, a glorious and galvanising poetry collection that feels like a forest growing around you. (Laura Vincent's website)

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs