Best Books 2021

Another year of living covidly (hence no book fairs) but there have been some great New Zealand publications this year. A third of the book I read in 2021 and my top three recommendations are all recently published books by NZ authors. Check them out!

Come Back to Mona Vale – Alexander McKinnon

Family secrets, a gothic mansion, and hidden documents – how could I not love this? The story of the wealthy Gough family of Christchurch – a tale of madness, greed and infidelity but it’s also an elegy to the city ruptured by the earthquake. The disintegration of Tracy Thomas Gough’s family is uncovered in true detective fashion by his great-grandson.

Unsheltered – Clare Moleta

Despite the bleak dystopian setting of an Australia ravaged by climate change I was gripped by the story of Li who sets out to find her missing 8-year-old daughter. The language is bare and stripped down – no dialogue tags, Weather with a capital W requires no pronoun – and it works to convey conserving energy, not wasting emotion against the hopelessness of their situation. A clever structure reveals through flashbacks the backstory of Li’s relentless search for her child.

Dressed: Fashionable Dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910 – Claire Regnault

A sumptuous book filled with images of the most exquisite Victorian clothing sourced from museums throughout NZ, beautifully photographed and full of fascinating information about the people who wore them. There are chapters on Māori fashion, feathermania, mourning traditions, shopping and home sewing – a fabulous resource for historical fiction writers.

The Underground Railway – Colson Whitehead

The psychological trauma and the physical brutality of slavery is portrayed compassionately and with subtle nuance. Compressing later historical events into the 1850s makes a powerful statement against racism and depicting the network of people helping slaves escape as an actual railway is an imaginative leap that adds to the story.

A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson

A ‘companion’ novel to Life After Life about Ursula’s brother Teddy, who is a WW2 pilot in Bomber Command. It tells the story of how his war experience affected his life – with a twist at the end. I loved the way the story looped back and then jumped forward and the visceral descriptions of the bombing raids were exceptional.

The Dark is Light Enough – Vincent O’Sullivan

A superb biographical portrait of the NZ artist, Ralph Hotere. Black Phoenix, created from the charred hulk of a fishing trawler is an astonishingly beautiful art work that I have been lucky enough to see.

The Tally Stick – Carl Nixon

A psychological thriller about three children that survive a car accident in the remote West Coast of NZ. Thirty-two years later their English aunt is informed that the skeleton of the eldest boy has been discovered, but what happened to the rest of his family? Why was he carrying a tally stick, his father’s watch, a dog collar and a wad of money? The characters have a lot of depth and I couldn’t put this book down.

The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey – Julia Laite

A feminist history about ‘white slave trafficking’ that follows the case of Lydia Harvey from Oamaru, NZ who ends up as a prostitute in Argentina then London in the early 1900s. Fascinating and extensive research reclaims the victim at the heart of this story.

Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller

Middle-aged twins, Jeanie and Julius, struggle to cope after the death of their mother. They’ve lived a secluded life on the margins of society since the death of their father when they were eleven years old, but are now being evicted from the only home they know.

The Commercial Hotel – John Summers

A diverse collection of essays (preoccupations) that are quirky, reflective and insightful – often touching on forgotten snippets of NZ history. One to keep for rereading.

2 thoughts on “Best Books 2021

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  1. I haven’t read any of these books Catherine. They look really interesting so I’ve added a few to my list. I’m a fan of Kate Atkinson so keen to read her book. Happy New Year and happy reading


  2. Thanks for this Cathy, I look forward to your reading year. I have just got the Mona Vale book out of the library, on your recommendation, so I’ll let you know how I go. I loved A God in Ruins, but hated the twist and felt cheated. I see that Life After Life is being filmed. It will be interesting to see how they handle it. I also discovered Claire Fuller this year and read a couple of her novels. Here are a couple for you that I’ve enjoyed: Emily St John Mandel & Katherine Heiny. Both great discoveries.


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