Nature: Stilled by Jane Ussher (Te Papa Press, $70). Yes, yes, I agree with you, it’d be really great if Te Papa Press put a stop to merely just staring at its own reflection by continually, constantly publishing books about stuff held at the museum and actually went into the world to photograph, illustrate and/or document things outside of its precious ivory tower. But it must be acknowledged that Nature: Stilled by Jane Ussher is a masterpiece. We should all a) be grateful Te Papa commissioned one of our few truly great photographers to make a record of its natural history collection storage areas, and b) shell out the $70 to buy this for someone at Xmas. Its 157 images are an act of reverence for our natural history. There are birds, bugs, shells, fish, roots, sea urchins, mosses and other specimens, photographed with care and consummate skill, with an eye for beauty and an artist’s appreciation of things most of us would overlook, eg a 19th century paper album handmade to hold a lichen collection. In the introduction, Ussher writes of the wings of kaka “like Flemish tapestries”, and shooting with a maximum depth of field. This beautiful book is a still life of New Zealand nature.


Nicola Legat, for Te Papa Press and Massey University Press. HarperCollins showed flair and imagination with Golriz Ghahraman’s Know Your Place, Gangland by Jared Savage, and Impossible by Stan Walker as told to Margie Thomson. It was another spectacular year for those arbiters of literary excellence, VUP, with leading contendors at next year’s Ockham book awards for best novel (Nothing To See by Pip Adam), best non-fiction (In the Time of the Manaroans by Miro Bilbrough) and best poetry (Wow by Bill Manhire.) Penguin Random House stuck very much to the absolute middle of the middle of the road, and Allen & Unwin had commercial success as the purveyors of junk (I’m in a United State by Paul Henry) and bullshit (Pull No Punches by Judith Collins). Nicola Legat, as publisher at Te Papa and Massey, enjoyed a stellar year: six of her titles featured in the best 10 books of non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction as named by ReadingRoom. She’s the most thoughtful New Zealand publisher of 2020 – you look to her titles at Massey University Press, in particular, for quality – and also has a journalist’s eye for a good, appealing story.  


Mary McCallum of Makaro Press. She alone saw the majesty and power in a manuscript by an unknown writer from Westport. New Zealand fiction, for the most part, is supplied by the conveyor belt from the IIML to VUP, and in more recent years the conveyor belt from the Masters of Creative Writing programme at Auckland University to various publishers (Amy McDaid’s Fake Baby for Penguin, Rose Carlyle’s The Girl in the Mirror for Allen & Unwin). But three of our greatest and most profound novels have come from outsider writers, that is, outside of the university conveyor belts, and outside of the literary establishment: Keri Hulme, Alan Duff, and, in 2020, Becky Manawatu. Her debut novel Auē is the biggest thing to happen to New Zealand fiction in a long, long time. It won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand award for best novel, and was the number one best-seller for the whole year. Good old ReadingRoom deserves a lil pat on the head for recognising it this time last year as the best book of 2019. But full, expansive and grateful credit goes to Mary McCallum for recognising its potential and bringing it into the world.

Wellington poet Tayi Tibble, winner of the coveted award for best hair and make-up in New Zealand literature


Tayi Tibble. Also the winner of the 2020 Voyager media award for best personal essay.


Central Hawkes Bay. It was their first festival and they were damned if a small thing like Covid was going to cancel it. The organisers staged a small and perfectly charming event, in July. The venues included two massive old many-roomed mansions in the countryside – chandeliers, kauri panelling, all that sort of grand and wonderful landed-gentry thing. It was an inspired idea and the whole festival was a vast success.


The National Library’s vile plans to dump over 600,000 books from its overseas collection. This spat is unresolved; this spat is a work in progress; this spat ain’t finished yet. Even as we speak, former attorney general Chris Finlayson is preparing a legal argument to take to the philistines, vandals and all-purpose bullshitters behind the National Library’s shambolic policy of dumping an invaluable heritage collection. ReadingRoom will continue to monitor the situation.


Letter to the New Zealand Herald from RM McCall of Mt Wellington. It was from the paper’s always entertaining Short & sweet section of the letters page and headlined, On Luminaries. The correspondent wrote, “I am pleased your correspondent Julienne S. Law (NZ Herald, June 5) enjoyed The Luminaries; somebody had to. I was gifted it and so was obliged to read it. It was the worst two years of my life.”


You Have a Lot to Lose: A Memoir, 1956-1986, by CK Stead at Mt Eden. There was a fantastic launch for Laura Borrowdale’s short story collection Sex, with animals, at Strange Goods bookstore, 281 K Rd, when publishers Dead Bird Books featured a line-up of authors reading their work, and guests included Shayne Carter; and a fantastic launch also for Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde by Paula Morris and Haru Sameshima at the very cool premises of the Parisian Neckwear building on Poynton Terrace. But the most fantastical launch was for the second volume of CK Stead’s memoirs, held in a church hall in the Mt Eden Village Centre. I interviewed Karl onstage. The place was packed. There was something elegiac about the occasion; Karl spoke lucidly, and wittily, as ever, but he also spoke at length and almost in a stream of consciousness manner when I asked him about the death of his parents. I had to fight back tears. His daughter Charlotte Grimshaw was in  the audience and she was unable to fight back tears. I’m a  fun guy and bring the message of momento mori wherever I go; and here was a literary giant, someone whose life traces almost the entire post-war history of New Zealand literature, making a kind of farewell.

Los Angeles, June 2020. Photograph by Anna Rankin, winner of best essay


“Los Angeles is Burning” by Anna Rankin, ReadingRoom. A very, very good year for the essay included Lloyd Jones’s powerful polemic which shamed National MP Stuart Smith for his criticism of Behrouz Bouchami’s political asylum. Jones wrote, “If a crayfish happens to stand against Smith in the Kaikoura electorate, I will urge his constituents to vote for the cray. A crayfish may only know the one thing – the vagaries of migration – but it knows it well.” (Smith held his seat at the election). Talia Marshall contributed several outstanding essays, as per ever, and the most outstanding was her dissertation about Ans Westra, published by the Wellington City Gallery. Two of ReadingRoom’s most popular essays were by Emma Espiner (her brilliant essay first appeared at Te Whē ki Tukorehe)  and the remarkable essay on migrant workers by Catarina de Peters Leitãoe (which first appeared at Ko Aotearoa Tātou.) But the very best essay of 2020 was New Zealand writer Anna Rankin’s phantasmogoric report from Los Angeles. She set out to read the temperature of the city in lockdown. She read it right: LA was burning with rage, she believed, and her essay read like a prophecy. Only a few days after it was published, George Floyd was killed, and the city – and others in the US – went up in flames. Besides all that, her essay is just so beautifully written; it’s the work of an artist.


“Leverage” by Catherine Chidgey in Landfall. As you would expect, there were numerous really good short stories published this year at ReadingRoom’s weekly short story slot; I think the best were “Party Games” by Emma Neale, “Enclosure” by Ruby Porter, “The Photograph” by Elspeth Sandys, “Psycho Ex” by Airini Beautrais, and “It’s 2020 and Ashton Kurcher is still trying to punk me” by Jordan Hamel. Elsewhere, the best stories of the year included “The Swimmers” by Breton Dukes and the very sexy “Rico” by Joy Holley at Stasis. But the very best short story of 2020 was the tough, satirical, compelling “Leverage” by Catherine Chidgey in the latest Landfall. The opening reached out and grabbed the reader by the throat: “Gibbzy was a c**t, no two ways about it, with his mag wheels and his forearms, so I couldn’t have been happier when Ashley told me he was leaving.” An amazing piece of writing.


“Filling the hollow society” by Giovanni Tiso in Landfall. As you would expect, there were numerous really good reviews at New Zealand’s best books section; I think the best at ReadingRoom this year were by Jesse Mulligan on the new Chelsea Winter cookbook, and Jenny Nicholls on Paul Spoonley’s demographic study The New New Zealand. Elsewhere, Nicholas Reid, writing for the Academy of New Zealand Literature, patiently and rigorously took apart Tom Scott’s biography of Charles Upham, and the always insightful Philip Matthews provided a masterclass of fiction reviewing with his review of Tally Stick by Carl Nixon, also at the Academy site. But the very best review of 2020 was by Giovanni Tiso in Landfall 240 of Brian Easton’s economic history Not In Narrow Seas. Tiso references WB Sutch, Bruce Jesson and Ranginui Walker as he places Easton’s great work in the tradition of important histories of how New Zealand was shaped. He talks about the book reaching “an undeniable crescendo”; the review operates that way, too, as both Easton and Tiso size up the trauma – and abject failure – of Rogernomics. This is first-class thinking and a joy to read.


Rajorshi Chakraborti. Raj, author of the novel Shakti published this year by Penguin Random House, took to the Twitter machine in March to post a photo. He wrote, “Here’s a throwaway photograph I took in a Calcutta garden because it seemed funny at the time now looks prophetic.”

The full stop is a nice touch. Image by Rajorshi Chakraborti, winner of the best photograph of 2020

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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