The year’s biggest-selling books FT Jacinda Ardern’s bookcase

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The biggest-selling New Zealand books of 2020, as recorded by the Nielsen BookScan New Zealand bestseller list and described by Steve Braunias


1 Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $35)

“A bar stool has been lifted, high up in the air, so high it might bust the ceiling, might smash it open, let in the moonlight and the starlight and no one would want to punch anymore … And down the metal comes, down it comes, freeing the beautiful white teeth from Toko’s open mouth.” Violent and brutal, gentle and poetic, Auē told a New Zealand story that New Zealand wanted to read.

2 The Jacaranda House by Deborah Challinor (HarperCollins, $36.99)

Becky Manawatu lives in Westport, Deborah Challinor in Hamilton; interesting that the two most resonant novels of 2020 were from writers living outside the industrial military literary complexes of Auckland and Wellington. The Jacaranda House is the third book in Challinor’s quartet of vastly appealing melodramas, and tells the story of Polly Manaia, who flees New Zealand and becomes a sex worker in seedy Kings Cross in 1964.

3 Tiny Pieces of Us by Nicky Pellegrino (Hachette, $34.99)

If it’s Pellegrino, it’s vastly appealing melodrama set in Italy. Charity Norman, reviewing Tiny Pieces of Us at ReadingRoom: “Part of the action is set in Italy, at Villa Rosa, a glorious spot which loyal readers will revisit with whoops of pleasure. The narrative takes on a change of tone among evocations of exquisite landscape, friendship, family, cooking and eating together. You might need your hanky for the ending, but it’s life-affirming too.”

4 The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35)

Demons; birds that can talk; marshland gods.

5 A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh (Hachette, $34.99)

Very effective thriller by an author best known for paranormal romances.

6 The Tally Stick by Carl Nixon (Penguin Random House, $36)

The surprise best-seller of the year. As Philip Matthews remarked at the Academy of New Zealand site, “Nixon has never been fashionable.” He keeps a low profile. Word of mouth made this a hit: it was seldom out of the top 10 in 2020, as readers were drawn to his story about children who survive a fatal car crash, and wander into the woods. Matthews: “Nixon is an enormously competent, highly skilled and accessible writer who successfully straddles the gulf between literary and commercial worlds…The Tally Stick​ is an efficient, gripping story, a Kiwi Gothic thriller.”

7 In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare (Hachette, $34.99)

The best creepy thriller of 2020, modelled on an Australian cult which fed children LSD and its leader, a strikingly beautiful woman, claimed she was Jesus.

8 Landmarks by Grahame Sydney with Owen Marshall and Brian Turner (Penguin Random House, $75)

It’s really a disgrace that this great big handsome coffee-table book is eligible to sneak onto the fiction list; it doesn’t belong here.

9 The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Victoria University Press, $28)

Quite well-known novel.

10 Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press, $35)

“In May 1930 I travelled to Dresden specially to see the exhibit at the new German Hygiene Museum. He was in all the newspapers, the Transparent Man: a real skeleton sheathed in a hard, clear skin, with the circulatory and nervous systems wrought from twelve kilometres of wire, and every plastic organ packed into place. I told my mother that I thought seeing the model might help me design the prototype of my machine, and she burst into tears.” The remarkable Catherine Chidgey sets her latest novel in the Nazi camp at Buchenwald.


1 Supergood by Chelsea Winter (Penguin Random House, $50)

Grilled sweetcorn. Rice paper rolls with peanut satay sauce. Pesto and spinach pasta.Golden tortilla bake. Gooey caramel slice; etc.

2 Searching for Charlie by Tom Scott (Upstart Press, $49.99)

Massively popular biography of a New Zealand military legend by a living legend. Scott – as a cartoonist, a political diarist, and a playwright – knows how to make people real. His assessment of Upham: “There’s that self-deprecating sense of humour, a wry way of looking at life, resilience, never asking someone else to do a job if you could do yourself, being egalitarian and fair-minded, physically strong, not complaining and whinging, quietly getting on with the job, being stoic, good-humoured, patient and resourceful.”

3 Vegful by Nadia Lim (Nude Food, $55)

Kumara, chickpea & mushroom burgers. Ratatouille, butternut & lentil lasagne. Tacos with walnut and almond chilli & guacamole. Pumpkin & cinnamon donuts; etc.

4 The Book of Overthinking by Gwendoline Smith (Allen & Unwin, $24.99)

Self-helper from the clinical psychologist. “If you are a chronic worrisome overthinker or worrier, then there is a 25 to 40 per cent chance that one or more of your children could be genetically predisposed to worry, just like you possibly were… I’m not meaning to be a scaremonger and give you something else to overthink! But with the understanding we now have of the genetic predisposition to anxiety, it is better for you to be aware of this information than not. ‘Forewarned is forearmed’, as they say.”

5 Pull No Punches by Judith Collins (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

Andrea Vance, at Stuff: “The entire book reads like a manifesto for Prime Minister Judith Collins.”

6 Impossible: My Story by Stan Walker (HarperCollins, $39.99)

Extremely honest portrait of a good guy who survived poverty, beatings, and abuse. From my review at ReadingRoom: “It’s a good yarn. There are stories to tell about Taika Waititi, Natalia Kills and Willy Moon (‘fools’), Beyoncé. The win at Pop Idol, the Sony deal, the success (‘At age twenty-one, I bought my first house, on the Gold Coast’), the waste (‘I often went on spending sprees and it was nothing for me to spend $10,000, $20,000 a pop on clothes in just an hour or two. London is the place to shop…Then I discovered drycleaning. I didn’t have to chuck my clothes away after just one wear. Dry-cleaning changed my life’). He got depressed, he got cancer and got his stomach taken out. He talks about his love for Jesus and his love of Māori culture. Towards the end, he busts out two sentences that get to the core of his book: ‘I’m dramatic. I experience everything intensely.'”

7 Bella: My Life in Food by Annabel Langbein (Allen & Unwin, $49.99)

Rhubarb tarte tatin. Sweet sour cream pastry. Duck and red cabbage spring rolls. Sunset cocktails; etc.

8 Māori Made Easy: For Everyday Learners of the Maori Language by Scotty Morrison (Penguin Random House, $38)

Teaching New Zealand how to talk.

9 Aroha by Hinemoa Elder (Penguin Random House, $30)

Named by Emma Espiner at Radio New Zealand as one of the best books of 2020.

10 Māori Made Easy Workbook 1/Kete 1 by Scotty Morrison (Penguin Random House, $25)

Continuing to teach New Zealand how to talk.

The year's biggest-selling books FT Jacinda Ardern's bookcase
Lundia shelving! Sunhats and helmets! And some books which are really hard to make out in Clarke Gayford’s terrible photograph of Jacinda Ardern at their Auckland home. There’s something called New Power, a Pilger, possibly a Fleur Adcock?, and definitely there’s a book on pruning.
The year's biggest-selling books FT Jacinda Ardern's bookcase

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