It was cruel to ask but, as the possibility of a summer break looms tantalisingly close and the need to sort those summer reading lists grows, we tasked publishers with choosing their favourite books of the year. And NZ publishers haven’t disappointed with a plethora of fantastic titles to add to the summer reading pile. The variety is phenomenal with te ao Māori and diverse voices a clear focus. The pandemic is evident too in both fiction and non-fiction. Books on well-being, cooking and horticulture are other favourites; clearly skills we’ve been honing during lockdown.
So relax, and take a dive into some of the wonderful books published in Aotearoa in 2021.
Sue Wootton, Publisher, Otago University Press
Otago University Press had 20 new babies in 2021, and we love them all! But there’s one title that is especially dear to our hearts: Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori Scholars at the Research Interface, edited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora. This beautiful and very readable book gathers the stories of 24 Māori academics, who share their personal journeys and reveal what being Māori has meant for them in their work. We were honoured to be publishers of such an important project and we’ve been delighted that the book has been so warmly welcomed into the world, sparking so many conversations and enhancing understanding about how mātauranga Māori is positively influencing Western-dominated disciplines of knowledge in the research sector.
In a strong year for publishers of New Zealand fiction, we give a shout out to Mākaro Press for their publication of Otago University Press poet Bryan Walpert’s novel Entanglement. Wonderful writer, wonderful novel and – as with all of Mākaro’s titles – a quality production.
Mary McCallum, Publisher Mākaro Press
Entanglement by Bryan Walpert is our only title for 2021 and therefore our firm favourite! Wonderfully the Listener has selected it for the best books of 2021. Bryan is known in this country for his poetry and short fiction, including a novella that won the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize in Australia last year, and Entanglement is his first novel. It’s an erudite and elegantly written work that weaves three apparently separate stories: a time-traveller in the US, a novelist researching at the Centre for Time in Sydney and a writer at a lake retreat in New Zealand. I love that Maddy Hamill, author of Specimen, says: “I freaking love this novel”, and that Gigi Fenster, author of A Good Winter, says she slowed down her reading because she didn’t want to finish. So hard to pick my favourite book by another publisher as there are some superb books out there, so I’ll choose two!
Gigi Fenster’s A Good Winter (Text) is driven by the voice of its protagonist, Olga, a warped, neglected, jealous woman who stalks another woman with tragic consequences. Not an easy thing to write a novel with the voice of such a person centrestage, but Gigi carries it off thrillingly and compellingly. I loved the subtext, too, about the roles women have as carers/mothers and the lives of the privileged vs the not-so-privileged. Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks (VUP) is another tour de force, with a protagonist almost exactly my age, that brings up so much for me that is both personal and political from the 70s, where the novel starts, and on into recent times with lockdown and Covid. The personal/political nexus is nuanced and intricate, with unforgettable characters and scenes. Reading this book gave me so many ah-hah! moments and friends my age have said the same.
Kevin Chapman, Director, Upstart Press
My personal favourite for the year was Tikanga: An Introduction to te ao Māori. The reason is that it is a book Pat and I wanted to publish nearly 40 years ago and were told it couldn’t be done. Then we resurrected the idea some years ago and finally got it over the line, and it has been so heartening to see the reaction to the book. Among a number of special books this year, it stands out for me.
A book that has stood out for me this year is Hei Taonga Mā Ngā Uri Whakatipu: Treasures for the Rising Generation (Te Papa Press). It is not only beautifully produced, but wherever you open it you find treasures in the text
Robbie Burton, Publisher & Managing Director, Potton & Burton
As usual, I have to apply the standard caveat – I can’t, indeed I won’t choose my favourite book among this year’s crop, as there is always something to love about what is on my list. But I have taken an enormous amount of satisfaction from publishing Annette Lees’ After Dark: Walking into the Nights of Aotearoa. Really fine literary non-fiction is something to be cherished, and it is so pleasurable to publish, which was absolutely the case with this book.
In the same vein Victoria University Press have published a couple of non-fiction crackers this year. I was swept up by the way Miro Bilbrough writes, and was completely absorbed by In the Time of the Manaroans, a book that I thought deserved to get more attention that it did, while I deeply admired Tranquillity and Ruin. Danyl McLauchlan’s mind is something to behold.
Quentin Wilson, Publisher Quentin Wilson Publishing
My favourite QWP title for the year: Prague In My Bones: A Memoir by Jindra Tichy
My favourite other publisher’s title for the year: After Dark: Walking into the nights of Aotearoa by Annette Lees – Potton & Burton
Toitoi Media Ltd
To celebrate the courage, curiosity and creativity of New Zealand’s next generation of writers and artists, we have created the Jillion 2 — a collection of some of the most amazing work from Toitoi 13-24. A follow-up to 2019’s Jillion, the Jillion 2 is a beautiful, hardcover book (complete with ribbons) that will be enjoyed by readers all over New Zealand and even the world. A perfect gift, available in 2022 – see toitoi.nz for more information.
A book we’ve admired this year is Mangrove by our very own submissions editor, Glenda Kane, and artist, Lisa Allen, published by Bateman Books. It’s a story with a powerful environmental message that has already inspired great writing and art submissions to Toitoi from passionate young creatives.
Louise Russell, Publisher, Bateman Books
It’s always hard to choose the book I was most proud to publish in any given year, especially as Bateman publishes such a diverse list. However, I think because we have had so much time at home nesting of late, the cookbooks and gardening book we published in 2021 have been the most satisfying to watch take shape. Therefore, my pick would have to be Ashia Ismail-Singer’s Saffron Swirls and Cardamom Dust, a feast for all the senses. And I would have been so proud to publish Lucy Mackintosh’s fascinating Shifting Grounds, though I doubt anyone could have improved on the beautiful job BWB did in producing that book.
Alex Hedley, New Zealand Publisher, HarperCollins New Zealand
Never thought I’d say this(!), but the highlight of my publishing year was National Identity by Simon Bridges. Simon was an A++ author, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. He’s an intelligent writer, and we’ve had compliments from all corners.
What I wish I’d published: well I’m a sucker for a bestseller, so it’s hard to go past Lost and Found by Toni Street. Another great year from Jenny and Michelle at A&U (still the ones to catch!).
Michelle Hurley, Publisher, Allen & Unwin
Times Like These by Michelle Langstone
I love everything about this book: the prose, the cover and design, and the author. A joy to publish.
The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw
I did not expect to come away having read this feeling so fiercely protective of the young Charlotte, but it’s just one of the many remarkable aspects of this deservedly lauded memoir.
Sam Elworthy, Director, Auckland University Press
Favourite book published: I’m going to sneak in a double — Paula Morris and Alison Wong’s A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand and Chris Tse and Emma Barnes’ Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers from Aotearoa. They are two anthologies of New Zealand writing that allowed communities to see themselves and their imaginative worlds out in lights. And both have been brilliantly brought together by editors doing the hard mahi finding new voices and brilliant stories.
Book most admired from another publisher: Can I pick an old one, or a whole series, in Scotty and Stacey Morrison’s te reo Māori learning books for Penguin. Superbly accessible, well constructed, well thought out learning books that have helped inspire many. Kia kaha te reo Māori!
The Team at Penguin Random House
The Edible Backyard by Kath Irvine has to be one of my highlights for 2021. It is the perfect garden companion with glorious photos and illustrations. Kath is a font of knowledge and her relaxed, witty style is a delight to read: like having an all-knowing aunt at your beck and call. I am immensely proud of She is Not Your Rehab by Matt Brown and Sarah Brown. It is a powerful and inspirational story, and I am thrilled with the success it has had. The feedback from traditional and non-traditional readers alike has been truly rewarding and it is a welcome reminder of the life-changing magic a book can offer.
On the very top of my jealousy list sits Bill Hammond: Across the Evening Sky. This book is a beam of light in a dingy year. A seriously spectacular publication from Sarah Pepperle and the team at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.
Rachel Eadie, Publishing Executive, PRHNZ
I’m pleased and proud to have published Tania Clifton-Smith’s How to Take a Breath in this strange year we’ve had. It’s a book that is easy to read and simple to use, and has lessons for us all whether we are wanting to hold our anxieties at bay, sleep better or see improvements in our exercising. And a bonus is that Tania is an expert on Long Covid, which we’d all barely heard of when the book was commissioned. When in doubt, breathe out! And if you just want to luxuriate in some fabulous images of flourishing gardens of all kinds around Aotearoa, then dip into the pages of In the Company of Gardeners (Juliet Nicholas and Sue Allison) to be transported to quiet and lovely places and be introduced to the talented and fascinating people who developed them.
From other publishers’ lists, I really wish we had Nigel Slater – such a sublime blend of the practical with writing that is both literary and entertaining.
Margaret Sinclair, Non-fiction Publisher, PRHNZ
The pre-lockdown half of 2021 feels like an eternity ago, so while there are lots of books I am proud to have published from then — not least the memoirs The Mirror Book and From the Centre — my pick is a novel that also touches on memoir. Launched, sadly, on the very night the Auckland lockdown was announced, Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan is an honest, open, heart-breaking and funny novel about a marriage with more than its fair share of challenges. It was such a brave book to write because it draws so heavily on Rosetta’s own life. In doing so, it prompts us to consider the line between fiction and memoir. Might fiction, in being freer from libel and the fear of hurting others, let you be more truthful about your reality? How truthful is reality when distorted by drugs, illness, desperation and memory? Is fiction pure invention or re-creation and shaping of life? Not that you have much time to dwell on such questions as the story rockets along and you really don’t want to put it down.
Another book about both emotions and finding a form to express them is Johanna Emeney’s Felt, published by Massey University Press earlier this year. This a superb collection of poetry, beautifully produced.
Harriet Allan, Fiction Publisher, PRHNZ
Grrrrr, it’s a tie. Homecooked by Lucy Corry is a brilliant, beautiful and inspiring seasonal cookbook by a deeply talented and truly great New Zealand food writer that (I promise) you will return and return and return to forever. Megan Dunn’s Things I Learned at Art School is Gen X genius and totally inimitable.
I’m admiring of Jared Savage’s Gangland from HarperCollins and also Lana Lopesi’s very excellent (and very beautifully covered) Bloody Woman from BWB.
Claire Murdoch, Head of Publishing, PRHNZ. Becky Innes, Director, PRHNZ.
2022 will, for me, forever be associated with our Diary of a Wimpy Kid series: as the mother of an eight year old in lockdown books have been more important than ever and this series has brought much light relief to our days. I have enjoyed sharing them around the neighbourhood and popping into the office to see if advances of the new one had arrived. My most admired book from another publisher this year is Should We Stay Or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver (so bracingly funny and imaginative yet true and poignant) although in terms of marketing and publicity it would have to be Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You – that book has been absolutely everywhere – nice work A&U!
Helen McNeil, Cloud Ink Press
My favourite pick for this year’s publications has to be, without doubt, The Time Lizard’s Archaeologist by Trisha Hanifin, published by Cloud Ink Press. Trisha’s main narrator is a “traveller” who experiences alternative times and realities, thus bringing to light the effects of overexploitation of the world’s resources and of a mysterious virus. The rise of a fundamentalist religious order that takes control in response to the breakdown of society is frightening and so easily could be true.
Ten years in the making, this book catches the zeitgeist of our current world. It is not a straightforward narrative, using many voices and many world views to explore the histories, the environments, the world views of diverse peoples, all living on the endangered “blue marble” that is our Earth. Two things stop the book being about despair. Firstly, individuals of a younger generation who learn to “travel” and thus to learn, and the myriad expressions of spiritual guardians of the earth who live in the diverse realities.
If you like reading a book that will stay with you and make you think, then this is a good choice.
Two other books from Cloud Ink Press deserve a mention. Firstly Kerry Harrison’s Hold the Line is a nuanced novel based around the 1981 protests against the Springbok Tour. 2021 is the fortieth anniversary of this event that almost caused a civil war in New Zealand. There has been very little fiction written about these times and Kerry’s book catches the societal violence, the family breakdown and the racial prejudice that surfaced during this time. It’s very readable and not at all didactic. Secondly, Fresh Ink 2021 which is Cloud Ink’s third anthology of New Zealand writing. Loosely based on responses to Covid, the stories, poems and art works are wide ranging. This is the strongest collection of stories Cloud Ink has published so far.
Alessandra Zecchini, Media Director, Oratia Books
Among Oratia’s picture book list this year, Jill Bevan-Brown’s debut really touched me. Blimmin’ Koro shows how family aroha stays strong for a father and grandfather who succumbs to dementia, a message that resonated with recent experience in our family. Trish Bowles’ sensitive illustrations help transform what could be a sad story into something uplifting and full of love.
This year has marked the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death and while Covid has frustrated some of the planned celebrations among the Italian community, it hasn’t stopped some memorable publishing. Marco Sonzogni’s Quantum of Dante reproduces the entire Divine Comedy in one slim, beautifully bound volume. This is a gem of a book — inventive, fun, and superbly designed and printed by Beatnik. Bravo!
Lynette Evans, Publishing Manager, Scholastic New Zealand
Let’s be honest, we parents, I mean publishers, never ever have favourites! And as for 2021, we are happy to have actually survived to the almost-end. There are many books that the Scholastic New Zealand team is proud to have published this year, but there’s one particularly plucky and quietly gentle one that we love because it ignites the imagination and celebrates discovery, determination and daring to dream. These, along with an unstoppable spirit of adventure and the unfailing love of family, are what made Ming’s Iceberg, written by Kiri Lightfoot and illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, a joy for us to publish for children and anyone who looks at our beautiful, big wide world with a sense of wonder and what-if . . .
And the book we admire so very much (that we didn’t publish) is Gavin Bishop’s Atua, Māori Gods and Heroes. It is a treasure.
Rachel Lawson, Publisher, Gecko Press
No favourites! But in the spirit of publisher’s choice, I’ll nominate Aurore Petit’s A Mother Is a House. For me this book still carries the sparkle of its French publisher Valérie Cussaguet as she presented it to me at the Montreuil book fair, heaving with pre-pandemic crowds two years ago – animatedly pointing out favourite illustrations and insisting I look again to catch the details. The book describes a mother through a baby’s eyes – she blazes off the page in neon colour: a food dispenser, a doctor, a hillside, an artwork, an umbrella. It’s fun to read with children and a pretty nice gift for a mother too.
As for other publishers’ books, I’ve been captured by The Abundant Garden by Niva and Yotam Kay, a book that’s so accessible and goodhearted it’s convinced me I can easily create vegetable patch bounty from a wind-blasted deep-clay hillside in Wellington. Thank you, Allen and Unwin!
Christine Dale and Jenny Nagle, OneTree House
As you say choosing a favourite is unfair so under protest our favourite child PROTEST: Shaping Aotearoa by Mandy Hager.
What we would have liked to have published, we think the groundbreaking anthologies have been awesome this year – A Clear Dawn: anthology of Asian writing and OUT – both AUP titles