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The books that are making us laugh, cry and reflect

Here's what North & South writers and contributors have been reading –  Malcolm Gladwell's latest, the shearing legends of New Zealand, and more recent NZ and international releases.

New Zealand books

Edited by Paul Little

Funny As

Funny As. The Story of New Zealand Comedy

Paul Horan and Philip Matthews (Auckland University Press, $50)

She’s a hard road finding the perfect way to write about comedy. Try to be funny and you’ll be unfavourably compared with your subjects. Resist all temptation to humour and you’ll be accused of producing something ironically dry given your subject, LOL. The latter option, however, is the safer course and has been taken here.

This is more correctly the story of New Zealand humour than of comedy, covering not just performers and performances but columnists, novelists and cartoonists. It’s “the book of the series” (recently screened on TVNZ), and it’s not clear how the two align.

It’s by no means complete, and naming every person who made a dollar from comedy would result in a book the size of a phone directory (kids, ask your parents) and about as entertaining. At times, however, you can feel the pressure of trying to include so many performers and shows. Never mind the comedy, feel the name-checks.

Inevitably some favourites are omitted, while currently fashionable performers whose career lifespans will turn out to be shorter than they might expect are included. Everyone will have their own favourite omissions and, since you ask, mine would include Michael Wilson’s play Huffers, the TV series Serial Killers and the feature film Skin Deep.

The book does give overdue credit to some all-but-forgotten historical performers and productions. It also acknowledges the place of capping revues, not just – as the cliche has it – as breeding grounds for comic talent, but also as extremely funny shows. And it confronts the Billy T question – racist or nah? – in some depth.

The book has the benefit of thorough notes and bibliography, but no index, which will be a source of great frustration to the many people who will want to see if their names are in it or not before handing over their money.

Te Hei Tiki: An Enduring Treasure in a Cultural Continuum

Dougal Austin (Te Papa Press, $65)

This book is carefully constructed to demonstrate the continuum of the subtitle by providing “a whakapapa for hei tiki”. Even the author’s jacket photo reflects that continuum, showing him in the same pose as the Māori subject of William Hodges’ 1773 “A View in Dusky Bay New Zealand”. The title pages are taken up by a photo of a site where pounamu for making hei tiki is sourced, set above a braided river, which “serves as a metaphor for the multiple strands of influence that have shaped hei tiki”.

More than personal adornments, hei tiki and the resurgence of interest in them are seen as a metaphor for the recent revitalisation of Māori culture. Many people will be oblivious to the exact meaning of the familiar phrase: “hei” refers to something worn around the neck and “tiki” means a representation of the human figure. Dougal Austin, a senior curator at Te Papa Tongarewa, recontextualises the objects, explaining and exploring the aesthetic and spiritual qualities packed into their deceptively simple form.

He goes into detail about types and designs, the materials used and the processes by which they were fashioned. He recounts the dramatic and frequently historically significant life stories of several important examples, and describes the variations in style between tribes.

There’s a fascinating chapter on hei tiki and cultural appropriation – which was how many Pākehā were probably first exposed to them, in plastic versions given out to passengers by Air New Zealand.

Te Papa Press’s customary high standard of reproduction and design is maintained here. Lavishly illustrated, with many of the hei tiki pictured in larger-than-life-size, full-page glory, the book has some claim to being described as a taonga in its own right.

The Shearers: New Zealand Legends

Ruth Entwistle Low (Penguin, $45)

Shearing doesn’t have the high profile it did when the Golden Shears competition was, if not a nation-stopping event, at least widely reported. Many readers will be surprised to learn the number of sheep per head of population has dropped from 20 in 1982 to just six.

There have been earlier books on shearing, including one called Shear Hard Work. The publishers are to be commended for resisting the temptation to call this one Where There’s a Wool There’s a Pay or Fleece Navidad or From Clip to Shore. I’ll stop now.

This overview of the industry is a largely oral history divided into four parts: The Shearers, Their Work, Their World, Their Guts and Glory.

There are only so many synonyms for sheep, which is a challenge for a writer wanting not to repeat herself. That’s a better option, though, than referring to the woolly wonders as “cloven-hoofed ovines”, which Low does only once.

The shearing industry is in many ways clinging to values that are no longer fashionable. Older shearers can frequently be heard lamenting the attitude of their younger counterparts. Their relative indolence and lack of initiative are a recurring theme.

The industry is clearly still a numbers game, and a summary of how it works could be a paradigm for free-market labour policies: “The fact that a shearer’s wage is determined solely by the number of sheep they shear is a great motivator. Those keen to earn well will work hard... ”

Those hard workers share camaraderie and a deal of you-probably-had-to-be-there humour. They’re also craftspeople who speak of each other’s work with the sort of respect virtuoso musicians show for each other. Despite appearances, they are not so much living in the past as in a present that has stayed the same for many years.

Nailing Down the Saint

Craig Cliff (Vintage, $38)

In this novel, Duncan Blake has made one successful independent movie and subsequently been fired from a major studio production. Next stop for the expat New Zealander: waiting on tables at a franchise restaurant serving Italian food in LA, in the hope of meeting regular customer and legendary filmmaker Frank Motta and talking his way into a job.

Motta has been trying for years to make a film on St Giuseppe da Copertino, 17th-century mystic and levitator. Before long, he has given Blake the task of doing research on the saint in Italy, visiting the places that were important in his life to provide background for the movie, which may never happen.

It looks like Blake is going up in the world, but up and down are all over the place here, with references to numerous pop-culture floaters, from Aladdin to The Last American Hero.

For company, Blake has a friend (not girlfriend) – video-game expert Mack. Together they are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, travelling the countryside trying to work out what is real or not in the saint’s history. Traditionally, of course, people don’t fly, but the question is made more complicated when they come across Mille Fiori, a sort-of cult, headed by a New Zealander, that apparently has mastered the art of levitation. There is video on YouTube, so it must be true.

This is Craig Cliff’s second novel, and he presents a diverse, Pynchon-esque milieu of fast-talkers and fantasists, con artists and cultists, and people just trying to get by. They all play their parts in a book that is an exhilarating mix of road movie, superhero movie, hagiography, making-of movie, quirky independent feature and more – all wrapped up in a vastly entertaining package that has its doubts about the value of both scepticism and belief. 

Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi

Toby Morris with Ross Calman and Mark Derby (Lift Education E Tū, $20)

The closest thing we have to a founding document continues its adventures in exegesis – this time in the form of a graphic book. Like its subject, it is in two versions: read it in English one way, turn it around and read it in te reo Māori the other. The gestation of the book is almost as complicated as that of the Treaty itself. It combines two pieces originally published in the School Journal a couple of years ago, and numerous authorities have been consulted to complete this final version – which proves you can never try to explain the Treaty too much. Good for Aotearoa, and for New Zealanders of all ages. 

Rufus Marigold

Ross Murray (Earth’s End Publishing, $35)

The title character of this series of strips, adapted into a novel from earlier online versions, is an individual out of place in the world in which he lives – being a chimpanzee probably has a lot to do with it. Rufus is literally nauseated by much of modern life but carries on stoically, like a simian Sisyphus, just trying to get through to the other side of the day. Having gone so far down this existentially gloomy path, it’s important to note also that the strips are very funny. It’s a beguiling, wry but ultimately quite bleak take on contemporary life, skilfully executed by Mount Maunganui artist Ross Murray.

Someone’s Wife: A Memoir of Sorts

Linda Burgess (Allen & Unwin, $37)

The title refers to the author’s long-time position as not just anyone’s wife, but that of an All Black – Bob Burgess (1971-73, 30 matches, seven internationals – stats she mysteriously fails to include). The eponymous essay is a deadpan description of aspects of life as a member of the group who would “be called WAGS now”. Every word in it is perfectly picked and placed. In a literary landscape littered with anodyne AB bios, this is a rare, all-too-brief glimpse into real life behind the grandstand facade, made even better by Burgess’ wit and incisive observation. As far as I know, she is the first person to identify Keith Murdoch’s Lawrentian (gamekeeper) attributes – obvious, once she mentions it.

Burgess specialises in “come again?” throwaway lines, such as mentioning that future murder victim Harvey Crewe was a fellow guest at her brother’s fifth birthday party. Or that Jon Gadsby was a schoolboy Iago in a reading of Othello.

She bravely tackles topics seldom mentioned in polite, liberal, literary circles these days – such as an infatuation with the royals – and deploys some of her strongest satire on the phenomenon of adult children returning to the family home at their convenience. 

Her outline for a Famous Five update, with the characters at their present-day age, is better than anything Enid Blyton ever did with Julian, Dick and co. Alongside the acerbic and nostalgic, there’s sorrow in her account of the cot death of son Toby, no less shocking for the restraint with which it is described.

From that tragedy, to being an atheist teaching in a Catholic school, to being a fish-out-of-water rugby wife in France, Burgess has the welcome gift of giving her experiences universal relevance.

Promises, Promises: 80 Years of Wooing New Zealand Voters

Claire Robinson  (Massey University Press, $60)

This history of political advertising covers 27 elections since 1938, when the National-Labour duopoly began. That’s relevant because those parties have exploited the rules around advertising to maintain their dominance ever since, explains Robinson, who’s a media commentator on politics and Professor of Communication Design at Massey University.

The obvious questions are asked and answered: for instance, can advertising really change the way people vote? Probably not, but it might influence the small percentage of voters whose party loyalties are not fixed and whose preferences may determine the outcome of an election.

Robinson demonstrates repeatedly how ads can be used to set campaign agendas, especially as they reach the audience without being mediated by the media. So, to a large extent this is a history of political orthodoxy as it has changed over the decades, as seen through advertisements.

For a start, the ubiquity of ads showing Pākehā nuclear families has established them as the archetypal New Zealand voter. Is there a dog in the picture, too?

Leaders? They will be shown as white, male and have tidy families. The current Prime Minister has disrupted that narrative, although attempts were made to give her the preferred humble beginnings in pre-election publicity.

Unfortunately, because Robinson wants to show how ads mirror political priorities of the time, she has to spend too many words backgrounding the political scene, words which might have been more instructively used to deconstruct the ads themselves. However, she seems happy to share her own political views. An incongruous epilogue laments the state of the economy and the nation in general, and mentions advertising only in passing.

That notwithstanding, the ads reproduced here are an embarrassment of riches that more than compensate – the good, the bad and the what-were-they-thinking? One in which the National Party tried to get “with it” in 1963 is positively chilling.

The Basis of Everything

Andrew Ramsey (HarperCollins, $45)

If relatively little is known in his home country about the life and achievements of Baron Rutherford – compared to, say, those of Sirs Edmund Hillary or Peter Jackson – even less is known about his Australian protégé and successor Mark Oliphant. Ramsey’s double biography goes a long way to rectifying both omissions.

Don’t be put off by the audacious creative licence on the first page, in which the author, describing Rutherford’s 1925 arrival in Adelaide, intuits that he “inhaled deeply on the brackish breeze that fluttered almost apologetically… as he unsteadily descended the gangplank”. Such brio makes for an engaging read, generally grounded soundly in concrete and vivid detail.

The stories of the pair’s early lives are told in parallel – albeit they are a generation apart. Then we leave Oliphant for some time to follow Rutherford’s stratospheric youthful successes.

It’s a quirk of science that pure research can often lead to extremely practical results, and unintended consequences abound here. Rutherford’s work, for instance, led to such diverse outcomes as smoke alarms and the accurate calculation of the age of the Earth. Oliphant’s work helped give us the mixed blessing of the microwave oven.

The New Zealander is the larger personality. With his short temper, portly bearing and clubbability, he recalls another New Zealand character who became famous in England: David Low’s fictional Colonel Blimp.

The book focuses mainly, as per the subtitle Rutherford, Oliphant and the Coming of the Atomic Bomb, on how the work of both men drove the development of the atom bomb, just in time to end World War II. Here, Ramsey is stuck trying to have his yellow-cake and eat it: claiming, for Rutherford in particular, a primary role in developing the science for the bomb while downplaying any culpability for its consequences. And that, when it comes to scientists and any responsibility for how their discoveries are used, is an all-too-familiar story.

Rugby Folklore

Matt Elliott (HarperCollins, $40)

Cometh the Rugby World Cup, cometh the merchandise, including this diverting miscellany. If you have ever felt the lack of historical, excruciating rugby doggerel in your life, this is the book for you. As well as ancient poems of dubious merit, Elliott has unearthed a copious amount of trivia, quotes, jokes and stats.

Occasionally you sense him struggling to fill the pages, especially when, in “The Making of an All Black”, he resorts to describing almost frame by frame a TV documentary of the same name anyone can view for themselves at nzonscreen.com. But that leaves plenty to enjoy. There are compelling accounts of some great, barely remembered matches. And a rhythmic litany of players’ superstitions – Fox and Loveridge always put their left boots on first – is strangely compelling.

We learn about everything from All Blacks who died after on-field injuries, to the details of a Ranfurly Shield board game from the 1960s. It’s great to have so many Murray Mexted quotes conveniently gathered in one place: “There’s nothing that a tight forward likes more than a loosie right up his backside.” 

Folk medicine and rugby folklore collide successfully when George Nepia is (possibly) saved thanks to a teammate’s mother using kōwhai bark to treat a haematoma that had proved resistant to mainstream medicine.

And there is ancient wisdom to be found in the 1960s All Blacks Book for Boys, by Don Clarke and Pat Booth: “There is nothing sissy about wearing your socks up.” As true today as it was then.

William Webb Ellis’ invention of the game is consigned to the dustbin of myth, and the Deans try controversy is mercifully restricted to just nine pages. A book for rugby obsessives – so it should find a wide readership, indeed.

Always Song in the Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook

Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, $45)

It starts with a description of the author’s dinghy, which expands to become other vessels: a coffin, the human body, a church. There follow two voyages of discovery – one around Northland, the other a voyage to the Kermadecs. The former is a close read of a small part of New Zealand territory, the latter is a revelation about how large that territory is in total and how little of it is land. It’s beautifully written and beautifully illustrated by artworks, film stills, sketches and snapshots. Sometimes the author’s erudition is more than a sentence can bear: Heraclitus, Freud and Australian writer Fiona Capp are shoehorned into one. But his gift for teasing often startling significance out of the lightest experience more than compensates in this highly original volume.

BeWILDered: Leaving Everything Behind for 3000km in the Wilds of New Zealand

Laura Waters (Hachette, $33)

Despite the title, there is no confusion in Waters’ memoir of quitting the corporate world in Melbourne to spend five months walking the Te Araroa trail. This is one of those books in which authors go on a challenging journey of discovery, and end up discovering who they are. As someone once said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” As often, New Zealand stands in for the virgin territory on which the subject can impose their personality, and Waters is a fine describer of landscapes, both outer and inner. Whatever else, anyone who can trek through these islands with nothing more than what they can carry deserves our admiration.

International books 

Edited by Virginia Larson



Téa Obreht (Hachette, $45)

Ever heard of the US Camel Corps? Me neither. The short-lived experiment (1855-1864) saw camels introduced into the US Army because they could bear enormous weights. (Turns out they had downsides, too.) Lurie, a young outlaw, falls in with the Turks driving the “beasts of burden” across the country. Lurie chats to dead friends, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, skip past this review. But magic realism is Téa Obreht’s signature move, and she does it well. The novel cuts between long periods with Lurie and a day in the life of drought-stricken frontierswoman Nora. Can you remake your life out here on the frontier? Or will the wounds it inflicts grind you down? This exceptional, dark novel follows Obreht’s Orange Prize-winner The Tiger’s Wife (2011). It had been too long between books. SARAH LANG

After the Flood

Kassandra Montag (HarperCollins, $35)

The water came in ceaseless streams, then waves, then floods. In time, most of the Earth was covered and mountaintops became boating hazards. Civilisation has broken down; there are no countries, only colonies, and raiders own the seas. Myra and her daughter Pearl have lived alone on the water, fearful but functioning, since Myra’s husband left, taking their eldest daughter. Their lives roll uncertainly with the waves. When circumstances force them to join a community on a larger boat, Myra – cynical and wary – puts them all in jeopardy with her barely contained desperation to find her missing child. Myra is a gripping guide through this world: tough, damaged, but ultimately loving. Human adaptability and the lengths we can go to for revenge or love underpin a sometimes brutal, sometimes hopeful, eerily prescient and compelling read. JULIE COOK


 The End of the Ocean

Maja Lunde (Simon & Schuster, $38)

Whereas Maja Lunde’s debut novel, The History of Bees, imagined a grim and somewhat distant future without natural pollinators, her second novel strips away water. This equally convincing tale is less sweeping; it’s a more intimate and immediate portrait of human folly. Climate change is personal for ageing environmental activist Signe when she embarks on one final act of defiance against those who have desecrated the waterways in her Norwegian village. The feisty, solo sailor laments lost loves as she journeys towards southern Europe in 2019. Alternating chapters find drought refugees David and his young daughter Lou in a French camp, in 2041. The traumatised duo are trying to cling to humanity and hope when they uncover Signe’s dilapidated boat. Both threads of the story are a tribute to the power of nature and the human spirit. SUE HOFFART

 The Body Lies

Jo Baker (Penguin Random House, $35)

Desperate to feel safe after a violent assault, a young author leaves London to teach at a university in the country. But as she navigates through student dramas and a demanding job, she realises her sense of safety is an illusion. A feeling of constant, creeping unease escalates when one of her students’ stories becomes uncomfortably personal and slyly threatening. She knows, and we know, that danger is coming for her – just not when or how. The Body Lies explores how women are forced to operate in the world, dealing with sexual politics, relationships, the weight of their own and others’ expectations, with one eye constantly on their safety. This is a slow burn that works on so many different levels; it’s thought-provoking and sometimes confronting as it skilfully, subtly, ratchets up the tension. JULIE COOK


Philippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster, $38)

Philippa Gregory moves her accomplished Tudor confections 100 years on, to the English Civil War, remote Sussex marshlands and an abandoned woman whose only power is her own. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, the walking night for the dead. In an off-kilter world – “the throne upset, the world overset” – a woman alone cares more about whether her missing husband’s abusive ghost walks the midnight churchyard, conclusive proof he’s dead, than greater threats to King and Country. With pitch-perfect prose, Gregory launches a new series exploring themes of power and equity. The hallmarks of her bestsellers are here: atmospheric, lucid prose; meticulous research; and a central love story reaching across social boundaries. But it’s also slower-paced, with an abrupt hanging ending – enticing or anticlimactic depending on taste – and transparently designed to lure us into the next book.   JENNY WHEELER

The Dutch House

Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, Released 24 September, $33)

Siblings Maeve and Danny live with their father in the Dutch House, an opulent three-storey glass and stone marvel on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Whether its design was “the confluence of talent and luck” or an “immense and ridiculous waste” is a matter of opinion, but believing it to be the former, the children’s father buys the mansion for his wife, certain she will love it. Sadly, she views the grand home as more of a burden than a blessing and disappears. Taking her place is Andrea, the evil stepmother in a small, pretty package. A modern-day fairytale set over 50 years, The Dutch House examines grievances that can’t be forgotten as the two children grow up to “make a fetish out of misfortune”. Beautifully observed, poignant and compelling. ELISABETH EASTHER

Deep River

Karl Marlantes (Allen & Unwin, $37)

“Sisu” is the Finnish word for determination, courage and endurance – and the characters in Deep River sure need it. Spanning the 1890s to the 1930s, this family saga follows Finnish siblings Aino, Ilmari and Matti, who migrate from Russia-occupied, poverty-stricken Finland to America. Here in logging country, there are no health and safety regulations and no ACC. Despite being “just a woman”, Aino is a talented and dogged activist for labour movement “The Wobblies”, but capitalist bosses, government, anti-communist propaganda and sometimes gunfire make this an unfair fight, even when workers just want straw for their beds. Deep River lacks the brilliance of Karl Marlantes’ previous books, but it’s still an engrossing read with remarkable historical detail and a certain mythic quality, influenced by the “Kalevala”, Finnish ancient songs and tales of heroes of yore. SARAH LANG


Talking to Strangers

Malcolm Gladwell (Penguin Random House, $40)

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest popular-psychology thesis explores what happens when things go awry in your face-to-face dealings with people you don’t know: i.e. everyone who isn’t you (family and friends included). Most of our interactions are benign and forgettable. To paraphrase one of Gladwell’s three propositions, “default to truth”, we give people the benefit of the doubt because life would be otherwise impossible. However, this also helps fraudsters, molesters and cheaters stay undetected. Add our routine misinterpretation of facial expressions and behaviours, and the consequences are sometimes tragic. Written so chattily that, to me, it felt like a podcast, this book’s blend of anecdotes and psychological studies makes it a snappy, interesting read. Whether or not all Gladwell’s points stand the test of time, it’s true that it’s better to trust everyone than no one. MICHAEL HENRY

The Weather Machine

Andrew Blum (Penguin Random House, $35)

In 1922, meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson dreamed of a time when computations could out-speed the weather. He imagined a forecast factory of 64,000 people, their brains humming away in parallel to solve the equations that could predict future weather patterns. Today, his dream has been realised, powered by satellites and super-computers. A six-day forecast now is as good as a two-day prediction was in 1975, and forecasts are getting better all the time. Andrew Blum covers the science and history behind this remarkable technology. He discovers global meteorology is the last bastion of international co-operation, largely avoiding the corrupting influences of advertising and fake news. We are now in the golden age of meteorology – some consolation given the world is soon to be racked by storms, droughts and floods as never before. KEN DOWNIE

Fentanyl, Inc.

Ben Westhoff (Scribe, $40)

Just when you thought the worldwide opioid crisis couldn’t get any worse, up pops a deadly white powder called fentanyl. “Worse than crack in the 1980s, worse than meth in the first decade of the 2000s, worse than heroin and prescription pills in the 2010s,” warns American investigative journalist Ben Westhoff. Deemed the serial killer of the recreational drug world, fentanyl’s rapid acceleration as a faster, more powerful high is putting both occasional users and the deeply addicted in grave danger. Westhoff, no slouch on the subject, goes underground, infiltrating a Chinese fentanyl lab; he also meets addicts and figures including an Aucklander, Matt “Starboy” Bowden, exploring the intriguing rise and demise of Bowden’s party pill and synthetic cannabinoid empire. Fentanyl, Inc. is a wake-up call to us all. Shocking and unnerving. JUDITH BARAGWANATH

That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea

Marc Randolph (Hachette, $38)

Successful entrepreneurs are often quick to tell of the multitude of money-making ideas they had before one of their ventures became truly successful. In the case of Marc Randolph, co-founder and first CEO of Netflix, his included a shampoo delivery service and personalised baseball bats. During morning commutes with business partner Reed Hastings, Randolph would float his latest ideas, often for Hastings to mull over and then gradually dissect to the point where they weren’t worth considering any further – until they discussed bringing movie rentals direct to your home via the internet. Simply put, this is a very readable personal recollection of the cycles of business start-ups and the luck of timing – which saw Netflix, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, become a household name around the world. MATT ELLIOT

The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution

Peter Hessler (Text Publishing, $40)

New Yorker journalist Peter Hessler, the author of four books about China, moved to Egypt just in time for the Arab Spring. Hessler was originally drawn to Egypt’s rich history, but what he’s produced here is an intimate snapshot of everyday life in a country crippled by its inability to transition towards modernity. He tells his story through an important archaeological dig and the lives of the people he befriends, including his Arabic teacher, a middle-class liberal “Nasserite”; his translator, a gay man in the wrong country; and the illiterate yet insightful trash collector whose access to rubbish is an excavation in itself. He describes a society deep in superstition, sexism, religion and poverty, with six million civil servants yet little structure. Hessler watches the remarkable rise of a social movement – only to see it replaced by a weak state. He builds a fascinating comparison between the buried archaeology of the ancient past and the Egypt of today. KEN DOWNIE


Dr Matt Morgan (Simon & Schuster, $38)

“What kind of doctor are you?” “I’m an intensivist,” I replied. “What on earth is that?” she asked. At that moment, something profound struck me. I had spent the last decade writing academic research papers that few people would ever read...” So English critical-care doc and researcher Matt Morgan decided to write for non-academics about his work in the trenches of NHS emergency medicine. He is disarmingly honest, clear and humane, and his first book reads more like a series of warm introductions than a roll-call of human catastrophe. We meet, among others, Christopher (sepsis), Rob (burns after his meth lab exploded) and Gwen (life-changing car accident). Morgan painlessly injects a whole history of critical care into chapters he names for body parts: The Brain, The Guts. Not every story has a happy ending, and the doctor admits to tears of grief and frustration – and almost walking out during a marathon volunteer stretch. In his job, stress is ever-present. His management of it is one of the more striking aspects of his curiously life-affirming book.  JENNY NICHOLLS


A Short History of Falling

Joe Hammond (HarperCollins, $33)

I didn’t expect a dying man to write his story with such wit, clarity and curiosity. But Joe Hammond, sucker-punched by motor neurone disease, seems quietly determined to show his life amounts to so much more than the disease taking it from him. Throughout his affecting and clear-eyed farewell, Hammond – sometimes visceral, sometimes poetic – describes the toll on him and his family as he feels himself dying by degrees. He unflinchingly explores who he is through excursions into his past, making sense of what has gone before as he faces what comes next. This isn’t a maudlin book. It’s simply, as Hammond writes, “The story of my end, or as close as I can get to it.” Intimate, warm, pragmatic and full of heart. JULIE COOK

Mrs Escobar: My Life with Pablo

Victoria Eugenia Henao (Penguin Random House, $40)

How could you sleep with that monster? Were you a victim or an accomplice? Why didn’t you do anything? Why didn’t you leave him? Why didn’t you turn him in? These are not unreasonable questions, which Pablo Escobar’s widow, Victoria, imagines victims of the world’s most feared and infamous drug trafficker might ask her. In this rambling tell-all, she explains that, quite simply, she was a poor Catholic teenager who hooked up with and married the love of her life. Love is stupefyingly blind, and the crazy money and luxurious life never dented her faith or loyalty – until now, as she attempts to unravel her late husband’s business affairs. It’s messy. Money, murder, guns, God, lust, lies – and a Dali painting – make Mrs Escobar easily one of the strangest sob stories in modern history. JUDITH BARAGWANATH

My Friend Anna

Rachel DeLoache Williams (Hachette, $33)

Life was good for Rachel DeLoache Williams in 2016. She had a dream job in Manhattan as a photo editor for Vanity Fair and a “new special friend”, Anna Delvey, a German heiress with a $60 million trust fund. Delvey was savvy, fun and flamboyant, inviting Williams to luxurious spas and high-end restaurants. Money, of course, was no object – until Delvey dangled an “all expenses paid” trip to Marrakech and everything went horribly wrong. Delvey was, in fact, a hustler, a “long-game con”, who not only had New York’s glitterati fooled but stiffed her friend for $62,000. In this edge-of-the-seat book, find out how Williams turned internet detective, tracking and tracing Anna Delvey until this year when she finally had her day in court. Harrowing and fascinating. JUDITH BARAGWANATH

Short stories

Grand Union

Zadie Smith (Penguin Random House, $35)

Zadie Smith fangirl alert: I’ve devoured everything by the British author since her 1999 zeitgeist-defining debut, White Teeth. So I fell on this collection of short stories as though it was the last helicopter out of Saigon. The 242-page collection did nothing to dim my love for the 43-year-old: Smith again skilfully bends words to fit her world view. There are 19 stories – some new, others lifted from the pages of The New Yorker and Granta – and all the usual suspects are here: race, class, relationships, gender, politics and immigration. They’re given life by, among others, a drag queen buying a corset, and bogan Brits holidaying in southern Spain. Call me biased, but this is Smith at her best. SHARON STEPHENSON

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.