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The best books for beach, bach and backyard reading

North & South book reviewers nominate their own best-ever “summer read” – the novel or memoir that burrowed into their brains, marked a turning point in their lives and sometimes warrants a rereading on a lazy holiday afternoon. Plus, all of our top choices for beach, bach and backyard reading.

Picks of our literati

Lang, the year before she learned to read

Sarah Lang: It’s a toss-up between the Anne of Green Gables series and the Little House on the Prairie series. I’ve read all the books in both series perhaps a hundred times, often right before bed. They remind me of hiding in a giant toy box so my father couldn’t see me through the window and make me come and work on our “lifestyle block” (gulag). I associate the books with terrible hay fever, which got me out of a few outside jobs (but not all!). I liked the high-spirited characters of Anne and Laura, and seeing how they had to edit themselves (sometimes unsuccessfully) to fit the “seen and not heard” criteria of their time.

Sharon Stephenson: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I first read it at school, maybe in the fourth form, and every Christmas I try to reread it. It’s a story that becomes even more profoundly moving with each revisiting.

Paul Little in 2003

Paul Little: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s exceptional in many ways, not least in being a fantasy series people normally averse to the genre can not only tolerate but enjoy. Currently drawing attention thanks to a pitch-perfect adaptation on HBO, it’s a rollicking adventure story when marvellous and miraculous things happen, combined with speculation on the death of God, and no shortage of the element JRR Tolkien singled out as essential for success in this genre: huge dollops of wonder.

Jenny Nicholls: The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s first novel. This 14th-century detective story has everything: a murdered monk in a large pot of pig’s blood, a library labyrinth, the Inquisition, mad angel-on-the-head-of-a-pin theological debates, even a love story (if a monkish one). The story is gripping yet intricate – it is a book within a book within a book within a (yes, yes, we get it – Ed)... It gave me a lifelong allergy to most other historical novels, with their laboured faux-historical nitwittery – “forsooth”, etc. Eco, an academic steeped in the medieval world, was fascinated by the power of ideas, and could convey a sense of what it was like to be alive in the Middle Ages. He made me understand that in history, we need to see the world through very different eyes.

Jenny Wheeler, in the 60s

Jenny Wheeler: It’s hardly “relaxing summer reading”, but it was a book I bought at the Maramarua tearooms during a NZ Road Services bus stop on my way home to the farm at the end of my first year at university. Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept enthralled me that summer. I had no idea I was purchasing a classic – later described by critic Brigid Brophy as “one of the half-a-dozen masterpieces of prose poetry in the world”. I later marvelled to have found such a gem at a roadside stop deep in rural New Zealand. Grand Central, published in 1945, is a passionate and unapologetic account of unwed motherhood. Even in the 60s, the viewpoint was revolutionary. There was no shame in this prose poem by Canadian Smart about her love affair with British poet George Barker. Their identities were disguised. I just knew I had in my hands a rare and beautiful expression of a woman’s experience that spoke to me in a way the male “literary gods” of the day – the women-hating Henry Miller among them – never could.

Matt Elliott: Every summer holiday when I was primary-school age, one of the first things my father would pack was a lovely hardback edition of Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography. Every summer, the book came home unread. It was something of a family joke that the book would annually go on holiday to our Northland bach. In the summer of 1982, I read it. At the time, I was fascinated by Chaplin’s silent feature films, in which there was renewed interest following his death in 1977. When I think of that book, I think of searingly hot afternoons in my tent, the light flapping of the walls, grey warblers singing, the thud and hiss of west-coast surf, and my dad, who did finally read the book some years later!

Virginia Larson: I started this best-ever book exercise but, on deadline, was still dithering over my favourite novel. Would it be Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye; Rachel Ingalls’ long-overlooked Mrs Caliban (later dubbed an “impeccable parable” by the totemic John Updike); pretty much anything by Ann Patchett? But I always come back to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient; at turns epic and intimate, it gets under your skin and stays there. Others clearly agree. In 2018, the 1992 novel won the Golden Man Booker prize – voted readers’ favourite winner in 50 years of the prize. Beloved books made into movies often disappoint. Not so The English Patient; Anthony Minghella’s 1996 screen adaptation of the seductive wartime story was an Oscar-scooping triumph.

Julie Cook: The Snow Tiger by Desmond Bagley. Years ago, Bagley was one of my dad’s favourite authors. In my teens, he was my go-to option when getting my dad a birthday or Christmas present, and I often surreptitiously read the book before giving it to him. The Snow Tiger is set in New Zealand in the fictional town of Hukahoronui, leading up to, during and after a devastating avalanche. It may seem a little old-fashioned now, but it’s still a page-turner, and an adventure I go back to read again on lazy summer days.

 Ken Downie in 1989Ken Downie: Nick Carraway’s “I just remembered, today’s my birthday” line from The Great Gatsby made quite an impression on me at time of reading. We were both turning 30 and I interpreted it as a metaphor for the end of youth. I don’t read much fiction, preferring history – and Gatsby is the only book I’ve read twice. The imagery is appealing and memorable, like the billboard with eyes that have no face in the “valley of the ashes”, where George Wilson has his garage. There’s something creepy about the image that I love. And I’m not alone; I’m pretty sure that both movie versions use it. The only line in all of literature I ever memorised (quite by accident), and have occasionally been able to quote at dinner parties, is the evocative: “In his blue gardens, men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” A slim novel for all its literary weight, it’s a wonderful snapshot of the hedonism of the Jazz Age and the myth of the American dream.

Judith Baragwanath

Judith Baragwanath: My love of reading began the day I opened Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. From page one, I was hooked by the storyline and entranced by the characters: the orphan Pip, the good blacksmith Joe Gargery who raised him, Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict Pip encounters on the moor and, of course, the heartless Estella and the fantastic, tragic Miss Havisham sitting at her decaying banquet table in her tattered wedding dress, having been jilted at the altar. If memory serves, on hearing the devastating news her betrothed had done a runner, she stopped the clocks at exactly 20 minutes to nine. She was wearing only one shoe at the time and there she remained, with that shoe on her foot, in a state of eternal mourning, forever frozen in time. The stark imagery will remain with me forever. And the moral of the story? Kindness counts. Friendship and loyalty counts. Good deeds are repaid and all that glitters is not gold.

Joanna Wane: One of my earliest summer memories is sitting on the swing outside my open bedroom window, listening to a record of Dr Seuss stories (Green Eggs and Ham, Fox in Socks etc). Years later, my own kids played the same stories on cassette tape; now they stream audio books online. Still, I love the heft of a book in my hands and resisted getting a Kindle until my 50th birthday. The first book I read on it one hot Central Otago summer was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The opening sequence, where 13-year-old Theo is caught in a bomb explosion at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, remains one of the most vivid and extraordinary passages of prose I’ve ever read.             

Related articles: North & South's best holiday reading | The Listener's 100 Best Books of 2019

Best beach, bach and backyard reading

Fiction

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Penguin Random House, $48)

In 1985, Margaret Atwood’s famously dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale introduced us to Gilead, a misogynistic theocracy in the former United States. Infertility is rife, so fertile, low-ranked women are co-opted as “handmaids” to breed for the powerful. The novel has been a cultural reference point for decades, but more recently the election of Donald Trump, the #metoo movement and especially the popular TV adaptation have propelled it into the mainstream. Joint 2019 Booker Prize winner The Testaments picks up the story 15 years after Offred (the original novel’s protagonist) steps into a van – and into the unknown. With three female narrators (including Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale), the book fleshes out the world of Gilead and at least partially answers some important questions. The sequel is pacier than the original, with an air of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It kept me up late. MH

Related article: Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood on tyranny, survival and protest tactics

Akin by Emma Donoghue (Macmillan, $35)

A retired, recently widowed chemistry professor is set to visit Nice, a city he left at the age of four to escape the war – shipped off to join his father in New York City while his mother stayed on in France. Now on the verge of 80, Noah knows if he doesn’t make his pilgrimage soon, he never will. However, just days from departure, he receives a call from the Administration for Children’s Services, who are “exploring Michael Young’s kinship resources”. Michael is Noah’s 11-year-old great-nephew and, with his father dead (drug overdose), his mother in prison and his grandmother newly deceased, there’s nowhere else for the boy to go. Noah is coerced into taking him to France. Just as she did with her bestseller Room, Emma Donoghue has created a captivating situation where a child and an adult are bound to each other and, as the odd couple navigate Nice and lay ghosts to rest, the elderly academic and the street-smart kid discover what it means to be kin. Surprisingly plausible, the tenderly drawn characters soon discover if blood really is thicker than water. EE

The World that We Knew by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster, $38)

A Jewish mother in 1941 Berlin, desperate to save her 12-year-old daughter Lea from the Nazi regime, finds an escape-plan partner in a rabbi’s strong-willed daughter, Ettie. Together, Hanni and the teenager create a golem, a magical creature of Jewish myth fashioned from clay that is sworn to protect Lea. Once “Ava” is brought to life, the fates and fortunes of the golem, her charge and her young creator are eternally entwined, even as their need for safety, love and revenge drives them together and apart, from Paris to remote villages and forest hideouts across occupied France. Hoffman’s signature magical realism and lyrical style adds rather than detracts from this study of war and resistance – of holding onto hope and joy in impossible circumstances. Spellbinding. VL

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin, $33)

The premise of different personalities forced into a confined space for a weekend is hardly new – The Big Chill, for example, did it exceptionally well. But Charlotte Wood’s sixth novel is a sassy take on the classic set-up, moving the action to a fictional Australian coastal town and adding three older women, each with a closet full of demons. Former restaurateur Jude, actress Adele and academic Wendy share the best kind of friendship: loving, practical and fiercely loyal. But when the fourth member of their group dies and the others meet to clean up her beach house before it’s sold, something shifts and they question their friendship, which was once as comforting as a favourite old cardi but is now moth-bitten and destined for the bin. As the Sydney Morning Herald so eloquently put it, “beans are spilled, veils are lifted, cats escape from bags and lives are changed forever”.  SS

Related article: Celebrated feminist author Charlotte Wood tackles the ageing issue

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Penguin Random House, $35)

Back in 2014, Olive Kitteridge, an HBO mini series, hit our screens. If you caught it, you’ll have been rewarded with the sweetly tragic story of an acid-tongued older woman, played by Frances McDormand, whose seemingly ordinary life is actually a knotted mess of heartbreak and missed opportunities. Or maybe you read Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 Pulitzer-winning interlinked short-story collection on which the series was based. Either way, the character with no filter, or manners, is back, and Olive, Again picks up where Strout left her – still living in a fictional Maine town, remarried and in her 80s. The format is the same: stories on the periphery of Olive’s life, including a dominatrix and a teenage girl’s sexual awakening; a background of depression, drug addiction and “that horrible orange-haired man in the White House”. You don’t need to have read or seen Olive Kitteridge to appreciate Olive, Again – but you’ll probably want to. SS

Silver by Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin, $37)

There are many reasons why Australian journalist Martin Scarsden never returned to his childhood home of Port Silver. But now, drawn back by a new relationship, he has reason to feel hopeful. Until he actually arrives. A bloodied body found in his girlfriend’s house points to his fresh start not being all that… fresh. Scarsden can’t help but complicate the search for the killer, his journalistic instincts alert to Port Silver’s undercurrents, as he mines the memories and people of his past. This slice of small-town, seaside Australia rings true, rendered in bright, beautiful colours. Port Silver and its inhabitants are vivid and three-dimensional; by turns raw and rugged, then welcoming and warm. Silver is a slippery fish of a book – it jumps, twists, turns, lifts you with it and just when you think it’s landed, it takes off again. It’s sharp and smart, unputdownable. JC

How the Dead Speak by Val McDermid (Hachette, $35) 

Criminal psychologist Tony Hill is in jail, wrestling with the routines of prison life, while ex-Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan is out of the police force, wrestling with PTSD. Dealing with the dramatic fall-out from their last case, these former linchpins of an elite police unit can’t help their old team, who are investigating 40 skeletons unearthed in an abandoned convent. But when a newly promoted detective discovers one of the skeletons is that of a killer supposedly alive and behind bars, Hill and Jordan are drawn back into each other’s orbits. This was my first foray into the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, but I’ll be seeking out more, because acclaimed crime writer Val McDermid (Visiting Professor of Scottish Studies at Otago University until 2021) digs up more than just bodies; she unearths the complex motivations of fully rounded, fallible, relatable and interesting people you want to spend time with. This snappy thriller is gripping enough to come with a summer beach warning – you may get lost in this story long enough to get crispy-fried and find sand in your extremities. JC

Related article: Scottish “queen of crime” Val McDermid on having a stab at Otago

A Murder at Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (Allen & Unwin, $33) 

Bombay’s first female lawyer, Perveen Mistry, is suspicious when three widows (of a single husband) sign over their inheritance to a charity. It is 1921, and the women live in full purdah – total seclusion – within a house where windows are “shaded with a marble lattice screen casting dotted bits of light everywhere”. When a man is murdered in the public half of this divided house, Mistry is the only investigator allowed into the widows’ dimly lit world, in which true alliances and resentments are as hidden as the women themselves. With chapters switching from harrowing events in Mistry’s own past, to her detective work four years later, this is a multi-faceted page-turner, filled with detail and atmosphere. Sujata Massey, a features reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun in a former life, is an award-winning British-American mystery writer known for her “Rei Shimura” mysteries. Mistry, her gin-drinking, trail-blazing Parsi heroine, is based on the first woman to practise law in India, Cornelia Sorabji. JN

Josephine’s Garden by Stephanie Parkyn (Allen & Unwin, $33)

Josephine’s Garden is a richly imagined recreation of Empress Bonaparte’s fluctuating fortunes as Boney’s consort, rooted in her passion project, the remarkable Malmaison garden, overflowing with plants propagated from French expeditions to Australia and elsewhere. Coromandel author Stephanie Parkyn’s PhD in biological sciences shines through in this odyssey of botanical rivalries and imperial ambition. As Rose de Beauharnais, Josephine barely escaped the guillotine. As empress, she strives to retain her marriage and throne by providing a royal heir. Her obsession to be the first to propagate eucalyptus blue gums in Europe is increasingly seen as a portent of her own fecundity. Superb historical detail, engrossing storytelling, and a touching rendering of the rollercoaster life of a woman who appeared to “have it all”. JW

Biography & Memoir

Travel Light, Move Fast by Alexandra Fuller (Allen & Unwin, $33) 

Life is hard, but death can be harder. That’s the major takeaway from this, the fourth memoir from Alexandra Fuller. The death of her father in a Budapest hospital shunts Fuller back to her childhood in Africa, where she was raised by a man who preferred chaos to predictability, who was more afraid of being bored than getting lost. Expertly splicing her grim, fatherless present with her unorthodox childhood, Fuller sifts through a lifetime of memories to celebrate a man who swallowed life whole, while civil war, poverty and complex family dynamics played out. Fuller isn’t a “look at me, how clever I am playing with words” kind of writer. She doesn’t have to be: she’s sharp, funny and an absolute joy. SS

Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner (Hachette, $35)

As the eldest daughter of the fifth Earl of Leicester, Anne Glenconner led a life of great privilege. Her family were equerries and ladies in waiting to the royals for centuries, so it was only natural when her childhood friend Princess Margaret asked her to be a lady in waiting, she accepted at once. In this classy tell-all, Glenconner recounts her three decades with the princess – not always easy, but never as difficult as her own marriage to the quite appalling Colin Tennant, who was prone to violent rages and bizarre behaviour. All Champagne and chandeliers it was not. Add the harrowing deaths of two of her sons (one to hepatitis C and the other to Aids) and this memoir will have you clutching your pearls in shock. A remarkable, resilient woman, Glenconner tells her story with the utmost dignity and humour. JB

Gotta Get Theroux This by Louis Theroux (Macmillan, $35)

When the BBC offered Louis Theroux his own television series, he had his doubts. As a fledgling presenter, he worried about his competence and then, of course, he worried about his appearance: “Weird looking, gawky, socially awkward, unqualified, anxious…” But, as it happens, that was precisely what the Beeb was looking for and – surprise! – he’s now famous and we’re all familiar with his small-screen gems: Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends and When Louis Met… His memoir Gotta Get Theroux This is interesting enough, but really comes alive in the retelling of his friendship with and the documentary made about Jimmy Savile, who only after his death was exposed as a sexual predator. Theroux still frets about this. Was he duped? Was he naive? Probably not, but the ghost of Savile still haunts. An entertaining read. Worry beads optional. JB

Demi Moore: Inside Out by Demi Moore (HarperCollins, $37)

Nine years in the writing, this 262-page memoir is split into three parts: Survival, Success and Surrender. A frothy autobiography full of Hollywood behind-the-scenes tales this isn’t. Half of the book is about growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family and the painful, long-lasting effects of that on Moore as she juggled marriages, parental responsibilities and her rise from teenage actor to the highest-paid woman in movies in the late 90s. (Not paid the same as the biggest male star, mind.) Moore, now in her mid-50s, is very candid about being raped, her alcoholism, drug use, and an eating disorder as she struggled to deal with her body-image issues. There are digs at two former husbands (Bruce Willis and Ashton Kutcher), but mostly this is a self-examination, in which she concludes, “I belong... and what I walked through was a lot.” ME

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang (Penguin Random House, $38)

The brilliant, bestselling author of Wild Swans, Mao and Empress Dowager Cixi doesn’t set herself easy tasks. Her latest is a triple biography that views turbulent, bloody, 20th-century China through the prism of the Soong Sisters. “Red Sister” Ching-ling married the much-older Sun Yat-sen, a violent narcissist who became the new Republic of China’s first president. “Little Sister” May-ling married Sun’s successor Chiang Kai-shek, who was eventually forced by the Communists to retreat to Taiwan. And political adviser and businesswoman “Big Sister” became very rich. The sisters were influential through not just their marriages and social position, but through their strength and intelligence (though they had plenty of flaws). Chang knows when to bring the political back to the personal, especially during the sisters’ schism once Ching-ling turned Communist. Through her mind-bogglingly thorough research, including perusing surviving letters, Jung brings alive the trio’s different personalities while also making an important contribution to the historical record. SL

Related article: How the Soongs shaped modern China

Me by Elton John (Macmillan, $50)

If ever the two-letter word was appropriate for an autobiography, this is it. For an artist who has the second-highest selling single of all time (“Candle in the Wind”) and whose records have sold more than 300 million copies, the music plays a very minor part in this memoir. Often self-deprecating, it’s awash with sex, cocaine, rock’n’roll, tantrums, extravagance, fallouts with his mother, failed relationships, and friendships with fellow celebrities – from Ringo Starr to Princess Diana, Gianni Versace to Lady Gaga. After sobriety came fatherhood, ongoing support of numerous charities, and a few more tantrums. The cover is a brilliant design and one can’t help but feel there won’t be many more rock bios like this one. How the times have changed since the London lad, Reginald Dwight, became Elton John and burst onto the music scene 50 years ago, greatly assisted by his writing partner, Bernie Taupin. ME   

Reviewers: Judith Baragwanath, Julie Cook, Elisabeth Easther, Matt Elliott, Michael Henry, Sarah Lang, Virginia Larson, Jenny Nicholls, Sharon Stephenson and Jenny Wheeler.

This was first published in the January 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.

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