Poetry Shelf celebrates 2021 in books: Three Booksellers make picks

Recently I drove into the city and went to the Women’s Bookshop and Time Out Bookstore. Carole Beu was out so I missed walking around the shop with her and getting top reading picks. I scooped up some new books and it felt crazy good to browse. At Time Out I had an inspired book chat with Manon Revuelta, got tips from manager Jenna Todd and came away with novels by Sigrid Nunez, a novelist new to me, and a Nina Simone biography. The following day I watched Carole’s regular video spot on Facebook (I love this ongoing feature) and bought the children’s books she was recommending in an instant (Dragon Skin is also a pick below!). It felt like I was back in the shop browsing with her.

Over the past four months, books, podcasts and tv series have been my ticket out of lockdown gloom and anxiety. Add in cooking, jigsaw puzzles and gardening, along with writing and blogging, well life has been surprisingly good. I have had numerous deliveries from the excellent Good Books in Wellington, and love how they add a message or drawing, plus what the staff member is reading. I can now add Auckland bookshops to my delivery mix again, and risk rare trips to the city. Books have been my anchors, hot-air balloons, sweet escape hatches.

Driving home to the west coast – where we have had myriad places of interest, covid hot spots, gun battles and deaths, devastating floods, local destructive conspiracy theorists – I am amazed by my capacity for happiness. Books are a key thing – the fact I’ve been reading and writing intensely. Usually I post a mammoth list of 2021 poetry picks by a mammoth list of poets but decided that was too much this year. Instead I’ve invited authors who have written or produced something that I have loved to bits to share picks (posting next week).

BUT FIRST: Secondly and selfishly, to make up for missing physical bookshop visits, I invited The Women’s Bookshop, Time Out Bookstore and Good Books to share 2021 picks. Any genre. Any place. Any time. I pictured myself walking down the aisles as they gave me some top tips. As a high risk person whose vaccinations may not work as well, I am so very grateful to my online bookshops – and to your safety measures when I recently visited. Thank you.

The Women’s Bookshop Carole Beu

Tenderness – Alison McLeod (Bloomsbury $35) This epic, absorbing novel is fascinating for anyone interested in literature & politics. It’s a book about a book – Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the repercussions down the decades of it being declared an ‘obscene’ book. The important people are all there and are vividly drawn – D H Lawrence & Frieda, Katherine Mansfield &Middleton Murray, Rebecca West, E M Forster – – and Jackie Kennedy thirty years later when Hoover is trying to stop it being distributed in the USA. It’s about imagination and freedom, brilliantly written and full, yes, of tenderness.


Matrix – Lauren Groff (Penguin Random House $35) Marie, tall, ungainly and wild, is not suitable for the court of Eleanor of Acquitaine. She is banished to a remote, run-down Abbey, which she spends her life transforming. She blossoms into a brilliant leader, eventually becoming the Abbess, fostering the talents, passions and creativity of the women  in her care. They become powerful, self-determined, and in our modern terms, extremely feminist!  It’s an inspiring and exciting read.

Good Books Jane Arthur

Michelle Langstone’s debut essay collection, Times Like These (Allen & Unwin, $37), is an invigorating, sensitive book that made me look at my world with more wonder. Each time I’ve sold it, I’ve been so excited on behalf of its new reader – and I’ve had terrific feedback from lots of them (including you, Paula!) thanking me for the suggestion, which isn’t something that happens that often. I’m a cynic at heart, but these earnest, loved-filled essays melted even me. I’ve read 50 books since Times Like These so I figure it must be special if it’s still with me this strongly.


For younger readers, Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin, $23) is, no exaggeration, a perfect book I reckon. My colleague Freya and I both read it and whenever we talk about it, we clutch at our hearts! It’s gentle and compelling storytelling, about a 10-year-old named Pip, who is dealing with some pretty heavy stuff in her life (family violence, grief, loneliness – but don’t let this put you off; it’s all done with a beautifully light touch). Then she finds a tiny dragon, languishing in the dust of her Australian town. The book could be summed up with a statement like, “Pip saves the dragon but she also saves herself”, but it’s so much more than this and utterly rewarding to read. This is a terrific book to give sensitive eight to 11-year-olds but since it’s probably my favourite book of the entire year, full-stop, if you’re a grown-up like me, you should read it too.

Time Out Bookstore Manon Revuelta

A book that really stood out for me this year was a tiny little memoir called Sempre Susan, by Sigrid Nunez (Penguin, 2015, $26). Nunez became a close friend of Susan Sontag after being hired to type up her letters in the 70s, and was also in a relationship with her son, David Rieff, for several years. They all lived in Susan’s Manhattan apartment together—a weird setup, but an incredible vantage point. Nunez looks back to that time and paints an intimate picture of the Sontag she knew, and in the way of truly interesting memoirs, a multi-faceted person takes shape: at times exasperating, at others endearing. Always dedicated to her work. The observations of her character are so intricate, they can only come from a place of love: some that have stayed in my mind include a particular green coat Susan wore for many years (the holes in the armpit seams were only visible when she hailed a cab from the sidewalk), or a joke she surprisingly found hilarious (“have you taken a bath?” “No, why – is there one missing?”). Banal yet so revealing. By proxy, we get such a lovely sense of Nunez too, from her shy and impressionable youth to her reflective and solitary older self. More than a portrait of a literary icon, this is an inspiring meditation on the art of memoir and memory, gritty love, friendship, and the writing life. I only wish it were longer!

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