Christmas book time again! Here are the New Zealand books I am giving to lucky friends and family members. Sure, by now we're all reading ebooks on our phones, iPads or book readers. But the paper book is far from dead, and still makes a fantastic gift.
How to Play a Video Game by Pippin Barr. Awa Press. Not interested? Then you definitely need to read this book. What's more, you'll love it. You have watched your kids and now your grandchildren get utterly swept away by video games. You wonder why, why, why? You have an opinion (silly, go outside and play, dangerous, antisocial, violent, whatever). But you don't have a clue what it's all about. Praise the Lord, at last a solution! Now you can secretly read this marvellous, bubbly, intelligent little book. Suddenly, you will get an insight into the joy of video games. You can have a proper conversation with people who play them. You are even going to have a little bit of fun yourself... If you already play video games, buy this book for all your disapproving relatives.
The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso by Peter Wells. Vintage, Random House. Colenso is a tragic, complex figure from 19th century New Zealand. Peter Wells has written a master biography with commitment, compassion and wisdom. His distinctive prose takes us into the mind of this eccentric printer and botanist, so brilliant, so right, so wrong, so lonely and so troublesome. William Colenso was both a passionate Christian and a dissident colonist, notably protesting at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on the grounds that Maori did not understand it. Wells also articulates the sometimes bewildering experience of his own journeys to historical locations in New Zealand: empty landscapes, concrete memorials, little museums, momentous events erased from the land. This is a terrific biography, both exhaustive and unconventionally personal.
So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the murder that shocked the world. Peter Graham. Awa Press. The notorious matricide by two Christchurch schoolgirls is the subject or inspiration of so many articles, plays, novels, and films (most famously Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures) that I was astonished to learn this is only the second factual book on the subject. Peter Graham plugs the gap with distinction. A lawyer, he is especially interested in legal aspects, but deals thoroughly with the whole sad story. In this case, more complete knowledge brings more empathy, more revulsion, more understanding, more puzzlement. I think I'll keep this book for myself, for personal reasons. Juliet and Pauline were in my class at Christchurch Girls High School, and Peter Graham's account has lasered away some of the resulting psychic scars.
Old Bucky and Me. Dispatches from the Christchurch earthquake. Jane Bowron. Awa Press. A precious and rare inside story about the big 22 February 2011 earthquake—personal, quirky, funny, tragic and above all real. Jane Bowron, journalist, shares the details of her day-to-day existence after the big one. She's not just writing about what happens to her and others, but about deep changes to mind and soul. Overall, it's a story of courage and community. Just getting the articles to press in the Dominion Post and the Press was an achievement. Writing with this much clarity was a miracle.
The Trouble With Fire. Fiona Kidman. Vintage, Random House. Short stories that satisfy as if they were novels. Entertaining—easy to read—but with depth. One of the pleasures of these people-centred stories is the writer's maturity: Fiona Kidman writes with complete control, and takes a long-range view of human behaviour. Her characters surprise us, but you get the feeling that they do not surprise the writer: Kidman has a profound understanding of people, including her readers.
The Larnachs by Owen Marshall. Vintage, Random House. Fascinating novel about the rise and fall of William Larnach, Dunedin M.P. and creator of Larnach's Castle in Dunedin. Marshall is in total control of his material, and he plays with the reader's empathy. You may feel exasperated and alienated by Constance (Larnach's young wife) and Dougie (his younger son) as they fall in love and deceive themselves even more thoroughly than they deceive Larmach himself. Marshall tells the inevitable story without judgement, and there's much pathos here.
Beat Till Stiff by Peta Mathias. Penguin. You already know which of your relatives is a Peta Mathias fan: she knows what to expect from Beat Till Stiff, and will not be disappointed. Articles on random topics are loosely united as 'a woman's recipe for living'. A woman? Too modest! This is a life recipe not from 'a woman', but a particular colourful, eccentric, opinionated, much-travelled redhead who writes with flourish and flair. Highlight for me: the chapter recounting her experiences as a counselor in an isolated drug treatment centre: the unbelievable is made only too real.