As I sit in the Read NZ/Booksellers office on the last day of my internship, my final task set by my lovely supervisor, Melissa, is to write a Top 20 books of 2020 blog post. The list and commentary below have kindly been provided by all of the staff members, which meant I barely had to do anything for this!
As it is such a small team and book recommendations are a rampant daily occurrence, we had a few crossovers which ended up with me having 19/20 novels I needed for this blog post. So I decided to add my own cheeky recommendation. As the U.S. Marines say- Improvise, Adapt, Overcome. Enjoy!
Juliet, Read NZ
1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I read this during lockdown at the suggestion of Victor Rodger. It’s a hard book to read and I had to read some of it with my eyes closed, but there are beautiful moments as well as moments of utter despair. It’s the love between father and son that I really remember about this book, and I intend to read it again regularly.
2. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. By contrast, the characters in Anne Tyler’s books are often unremarkable, but to me that’s what makes her books compelling. The nuance in her observations of ordinary people, their failings and their triumphs: they could be you or I.
3. Auē by Becky Manawatu. Again during the lockdown, I enjoyed reading the shortlist for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction for the Ockham NZ Book Awards. I loved the slow pace of Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall but the win by Auē was so deserved. I like books that make me feel something, and this book has it all.
Kathryn, Read NZ
4. Still Lives: a memoir of Gaza by Marilyn Garson. Marilyn Garson’s roles in Gaza ranged from being the Economic Director of a large NGO Programme to becoming a volunteer for the United Nation’s Emergency Team while the city was decimated by the 2014 war. They had resources prepared for 35,000 refugees, only to be met with 239,000 and a fifty-day bombardment, and this is novel is Garson’s recount of her experiences in the line of fire.
5. Know Your Place: the story of a child refugee who faced her fears, found her home and accidentally made history by Golriz Ghahraman. Golriz Ghahraman and her family fled from Iran and were able to seek asylum and a new life in Auckland. This autobiography tells of her family’s harrowing journey, as well as Ghaharaman’s successes as a human rights lawyer and the first refugee elected to the New Zealand Parliament.
Kathryn added this comment to accompany her book recommendations: “I think that any administrator would enjoy all of these because of the insights into process, systems and protocols found in each of them.”
Tanya, Read NZ
6. The Burning River by Lawrence Patchett – I went to an event at the Arts Festival where I met Lawrence and got to discuss this book with him so it sticks in my mind. The story is set in a futuristic New Zealand and is about a young plastic miner/trader who is summoned to lead the Whaea to a new settlement. It is slightly sci-fi, but the landscapes and people are so recognisable.
7. The Jacaranda House by Deborah Challinor. This story is set between Auckland and Sydney in the 1960s. It tells the story of a young girl wanting to bring her daughter from New Zealand to live with her in Sydney. The characters live in Kings Cross and are very much a part of the seedy night scene of the time and are full of humour. It is a touching story of motherhood and identity.
8. Life as a Casketeer by Francis and Kaiora Tipene – I was fascinated by the programme The Casketeers when it screened on TV. This book is a memoir of Francis and Kaiora’s lives and what it is like to work in the funeral industry. It really demystifies the ritual around death. They bring both grace and humour to an often taboo subject.
(This book was also on Kathryn’s top 3, so it must definitely be worth a read!)
Melissa, Read NZ
9. This Pākehā Life by Alison Jones. This is a deep dive on being a white person in New Zealand and everything that it means. What I loved about this book was the constant sense of doubt and uncertainness, its willingness to be unsure. It’s given me lots of new things to think about, on a topic I already thought a lot about.
10. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson.A wonderfully sad and funny memoir about growing up adopted in an evangelical household in Northern England. I found no self-pity but a mean dose of compassion for everyone involved in this life story, including the author. Also threaded throughout the story are many pearls about how reading can save our hearts and minds – I had my pencil out to underline them as I read!
11. A Fish in the Swim of the World by Ben Brown is another memoir. Something about 2020 had me wanting to read about other lives (perhaps in lieu of actually going anywhere different). I love to read about past versions of familiar places, and Ben’s descriptions of rural Motueka in the summer brought closer my own childhood memories. This was special because I read it while working closely with Ben on his Read NZ Pānui/Lecture and sunk comfortably into his lyrical sentences and evocative storytelling style.
Dan, Booksellers NZ
12. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carré –My favourite book of the year was actually a re-read. I had a summer binge of recent Le Carré, including his final novel Agent Running in the Field, and was prompted to go back to the source of my fandom. I was not disappointed.
13. Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present by Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis is one of the great thinkers of the 21st century and this year he was challenged to stop critiquing global economic policy but instead come up with some ideas for what governments actually should do. His provocative manifesto is the result (although even he wasn’t able to predict the crazy Covid world we are in at the moment).
14. Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter. This award-winning memoir was recommended to me by an actor friend who had just read it for the Blind Foundation. It’s a fascinating portrait of an artist who is full of contradictions - someone who embraced the prickly punk ethos but who also kept a scrapbook of all his reviews.
Tiffany, Booksellers NZ
15. Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam. An all too realistic story of teen drinking and sports culture. Brilliantly done but it leaves you feeling battered and bruised.
16. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. The story of Shakespeare’s son. It is set during the sixteenth-century plague pandemic; I read it during the lockdown which definitely provided an extra layer of eeriness.
*Gemma also placed this novel on her top 3. Her thoughts read: So evocative and emotional. I’m not a fan of Shakespeare so I was wary going in, but I was completely won over by this beautiful story of love and family.*
17. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. This is a very clever imagining of how different things might have been if Hillary hadn’t married Bill.
Gemma, Booksellers NZ
18. City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest by Sophie Cunningham. Essays about nature, walking, family, climate change, urbanisation, community and so much more. They blend together seamlessly in this wonderful collection. I kept getting sent off on tangents while reading this book because it covered such a rich wealth of fascinating topics.
19. At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond by Esther Freud, Margaret Drabble, and Sophie Mackintosh. Another essay collection that had me thirsting for nature and travel. I’ve never been to the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, but I could picture it perfectly in every season after reading this collection.
Kate’s Top Pick Because a Top 19 List Would Feel Weird
20. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. This book is the first of seven and when I tell you I LOVE these books, I’m not even exaggerating. The story follows assassin Celaena Sardothien, who either has to beat out a group of other assassins and murderers to become the King’s ‘Champion’, or return to the freezing and brutal POW camp she was temporarily released from in order to take part in the competition.
Maas’ writing makes you fall in love with the characters or utterly despise them, and the realistic depictions of war and tyranny may make your heart hurt. The story is set in a world very similar to ours, but with magic wielders and fantastical creatures roaming free. If you’re a fantasy romance fiend like me, this series is a must.
So, there you have it- The Read NZ and Booksellers Top 20 Books of 2020! Thank you again to the lovely staff members for sending me your recommendations and making this blog post so easy to put together. I hope this list, dear reader, will either help you out of a book slump or add to your ever-growing and borderline intimidating to-be-read list (throwback to my first blog post).
It has been an honour to be welcomed with open arms into the Read NZ office and to be able to work alongside others who are oh so passionate about books. Though I was only an intern for six weeks, I learned and accomplished more than I ever could have imagined.
Lots of love and happy reading,
- Kate Broadley joined us as part of the Victoria University Internship Programme in 2021.