In late 2019, I decided to start recording all the books I read in a spreadsheet. Call me a geek, or an obsessive life-long learner, but it’s a habit I’ve decided to take forward into my life. After recording each book I read for a little over a year and jotting down some brief thoughts on them, I thought others might benefit from hearing my hot takes.
I guess I should begin with a disclaimer and say that these books were actually read over the past 14 months since I decided to start recording what I read, rather than a strict calendar year… But in the interests of including some great titles in this list, I’m going to mention them here regardless.
I hope you enjoy these mini-reviews, and find some great material to read!
I’m starting with non-fiction, partly because it is my primary literary love and partly because I’m nearing completion of my first work of creative non-fiction, A Future Untold: On Storytelling, Narrative, and Systems Change in an Age of Crisis, due to launch in March 2021. Learn more and about my book here. Some of my non-fiction reading has been research for the book; others I’ve read just out of pure interest.
The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self Love
Sonya Renee Taylor (2018)
This book is not what it might seem at first glance. Going far beyond the notion of body positivity or self esteem, Sonya unpacks how our healing our broken relationships with our own bodies and with the bodies of others is key to dismantling oppression in our society along the lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, body size and shape, age, and level of ability. With humour and compassion, Sonya argues that we cannot do the work of healing the world until we radically accept and love our own bodies in all their glorious diversity.
DIGITAL VERSION The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
The Body Is Not an Apology offers radical self-love as the balm to heal the wounds inflicted by these violent systems…
The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics, and Women’s Writing
Holly Walker (2017)
I loved this book in its raw, vulnerable honesty about the madness of early parenthood. Holly speaks candidly about trying to balance being a New Zealand Member of Parliament with parenting, while dealing with post-natal mental health issues. This book helped me immensely with my own post-natal anxiety, and it made me feel less alone to hear another mother’s account of how hard it can be in those early years!
The Whole Intimate Mess — BWB Bridget Williams Books
‘I began to pull the threads of my experience back together. Instead of divergent stories about public failure, private…
Dare to Lead
Brené Brown (2018)
I read this book after doing a half day Dare to Lead workshop in 2019, and it solidified a lot of my learnings around authenticity, vulnerability, and leadership. It’s full of real-life stories and anecdotes, which is what I love most about Brené’s books. Really at it’s core, it’s about all leaders dropping their armour and learning to be real, fallible humans, and to encourage the humans they lead to do the same. Highly recommend.
Dare to Lead | Brené Brown
Daring leadership is a collection of four skill sets that are 100% teachable, observable, and measurable. The…
Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene
Rod Oram (2016)
In this easy, compact read, NZ’s leading business economist Rod Oram describes how conventional economic policies and tools are failing worldwide. He travelled to Beijing, London, and Chicago to explore how some cities are starting to explore doing things different that work better for people and the planet. With 50 years experience in financial journalism, Rod’s seen a lot and brings a balanced and hopeful view.
Three Cities — BWB Bridget Williams Books
‘With economies stagnating, politics polarising, societies shattering and ecosystems suffering, I felt an urgent need…
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles
Steven Pressfield (2003)
I read this book immediately prior to beginning the writing of my own. It’s a fantastic kick up the butt for anyone who wants to undertake some sort of creative project, and provides practical tools for taking that writing hobby, or painting passion, or whatever it may be, and transforming themselves into a writer, a painter, or other artist. When the going gets tough, this book is an ideal read.
The War of Art
Friends used to come to me all the time and say, "I know I've got a book in me." So I would try to help them. We'd sit…
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World
Anand Girardardas (2018)
This one is a necessary and challenging read for anyone involved in entrepreneurial change work. Anand explains how many efforts by business to “do good” come with the unspoken agreement that they will not take steps to do less harm. Leaving the underlying structures of unequal social and economic systems in place, those who benefit from unequal systems are often merely tinkering around the edges rather than seeking to make lasting, structural change. It impacted me deeply and made me seriously question my own role in supporting the upholding of the status quo in some of my prior work towards social and environmental impact.
Winners Take All
An insider’s groundbreaking investigation of how the global elite’s efforts to “change the world” preserve the status quo and obscure their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve….
Ask That Mountain: The Story of Parihaka
Dick Scott (1954/1975)
This is a must-read for all New Zealanders, and anyone who is interested in engaging with New Zealand. I thought I knew the story pretty well of the 1881 invasion of the peaceful village of Parihaka by the NZ Crown. But this book provided so much in terms of the context in which it occurred and the decade-and-a-half lead up to the invasion. A sobering read that well encapsulates the injustices at the heart of New Zealand’s Land Wars.
Ask That Mountain: The Story of Parihaka by Dick Scott
A fearless and ground-breaking investigation of the government-sanctioned land grab at Parihaka, and one of New Zealand’s most influential, must-read histories…
Re-Authoring the World; Narrative Lens and Practices for Organisations, Communities and Individuals
Chené Swart (2014)
This is a great read for those who are interested in the practice of Narrative Therapy to create a better world. Chené provides a lot of practical advice about how the practice and its tools can be applied in group settings in organisations and communities. Its super instructional in nature, and also has quite a few examples from her own life and those she has workshopped with.
Re-Authoring the World
Re-Authoring the World translates the Narrative Therapy approach and practice for people outside the therapeutic context and helps people shift stories in their lives and organisations…
Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives
George Lakoff (2004)
This was a re-read for me to get a refresher on just how much values and language inform how open we are to receiving particular messages. I first read this when working in politics in 2012, and it completely changed my view of how to communicate with people when you are trying to convince them of the merits social and environmental progress. It’s an absolute Bible for anyone working in campaigning, advocacy or progressive politics.
Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate
This was a spectacular book which has changed the way I think of engaging in conversations about political and other…
Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters
Rebecca Solnit (2019)
This is a collection of essays from best-selling author Rebecca Solnit, who is known for her witty, take-no-prisoners approach towards feminism and dismantling patriarchal systems. It’s hilariously funny in places, though dead-serious in others and uses tonnes of clear examples to illustrate how patriarchal systems harm all humans.
Whose Story Is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters
Who gets to shape the narrative of our times? The current moment is a battle royale over that foundational power, one…
The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough
Alex Evans (2017)
I loved this book, and as I read it I realised how eerily similar it was to the one I was writing. Alex describes why it is that evidence and facts consistently fail to sway people to embrace change, and how we need new 21st Century myths to guide our path. Tackling “us vs them” thinking, a short-term focus in social and environmental change efforts, and media-driven, rampant consumerism, it’s a good reminder of the ultimate power of story to move people.
The Myth Gap
Why, with absolutely no idea what Brexit actually meant, did the UK vote for Brexit? Why, rather than vote for the best-qualified candidate ever to stand as US President, did voters instead opt for…
Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2017)
Written as a series of letters from Chimamanda to a friend with a new baby girl, this was a really lovely read. It’s funny and personable, and sets out all things we should be teaching our young girls. As mother to both a son and a daughter, it was an inspiring set of guidelines to prepare both of them to navigate a rapidly changing world.
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From the best-selling author of Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists comes a powerful new statement about feminism…
You Are What You Read: Why Changing Your Media Diet Can Change the World
Jodie Jackson (2019)
This book explained in a simple and succinct way how the news that we consume influences our view of the world and makes us think that things are more messed up than they really are. Jodie also provides some great examples and resources in the emerging trend of solutions-based journalism that can provide hope for the media industry and indeed, for us all.
You Are What You Read
Do you ever feel overwhelmed and powerless after watching the news? Does it make you feel sad about the world, without…
A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World
Jess Berentson-Shaw (2018)
A Matter of Fact is a great, short read from leading New Zealand narrative and public policy researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw. It explains a lot about increasingly polarisation, why belief in conspiracy theories are on the rise. Very relevant for these times we find ourselves in, and it’s grounded in a New Zealand context.
A Matter of Fact - BWB Bridget Williams Books
I knew, and know still, that there is good science and bad science, misinformation and reliable information, truth and…
The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction
Ursula Le Guin (1986)
This is technically a short essay rather than a book, but given that it’s been treated like a book online, and because it is awesome, I’m including it here. In this “book”, the late queen of science fiction and fantasy retells the story of human origin by redefining technology as a cultural carrier bag rather than a weapon of domination. It completely turns the hero’s journey on it’s head in a hilarious and poignant way, and I’ve read it at least four times this year. Highly recommend, and the nice bonus is that it’s free to read in it’s entirety at the link below.
The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction
In the temperate and tropical regions where it appears that hominids evolved into human beings, the principal food of…
White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
Robin DiAngelo (2018)
I’m cheating a bit here, as I’m only halfway through this book. But there are still 14 days left in the year and I’m hoping to finish it over the Christmas break. Providing excellent and clear descriptions of the differences between racism, racial inequality, and racial discrimination, this book is a crucial and oftentimes challenging read that explains why white people have such a hard time accepting that we live in a systemically racist society, and why in truth, we are all a little bit racist. It is America-centric, but has a good amount of applicability to other cultures where systemic racism is present (e.g. pretty much everywhere) It’s hard to read at times, particularly if you are new to dismantling misconceptions around racism, but ultimately a really important one.
In this in-depth exploration, anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what can…
Adventures in the Anthropocene
Gaia Vince (2014)
I’m also only half way through this one (okay, more like a quarter), but am thoroughly enjoying it so far. The book chronicles journalist Gaia Vince’s travels around the world as she visits people who are suffering first-hand the effects of climate change, and are coming up with their own innovative, DIY solutions to mitigate the effects, despite often having scarce resources and little to no education. A hopeful reminder that while global leaders are bickering about who should do what to address climate change, lots of people are just quietly going about the work of getting sh*t done.
You’ll notice a distinct pattern in my reading of fiction over the past year or so. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve always loved dystopian narratives, or perhaps because 2020 has been such a monumentally disruptive year, but fair warning, my fiction list below is pretty dark… I think dystopian fiction can help to hold up a mirror to the human condition, and warn us about what not to take for granted. With worrying authoritarian political trends infiltrating a number of countries in recent years, it seems pertinent to be thinking about this stuff. I am, however, much looking forward to reading something light over the summer break!
James McNaughton (2017)
I LOVED THIS BOOK! Set in Wellington in 2045, it describes the city after the effects of climate change have rendered it deeply divided city ravaged by relentless wind and drought. It was so refreshing to have geographical references that I am intimately familiar with. All of Mount Victoria, where I live, is a gated community and at one point there’s a gun-show at Roseneath Primary School. It’s a bizzare and surreal read for New Zealanders, and highly entertaining if you’re into dystopian futures fiction.
In the not too distant future, the effects of climate change devastate the world and New Zealand becomes a haven for…
The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood (2009)
The second book in the MaddAddam trilogy, this book describes the aftermath of a deadly virus sweeping the Earth, and the battle for survival by a small band of survivors living in a rooftop garden. I enjoyed this, after reading the first book in the series, Oryx & Crake, a few years ago and while the characters are all new, it was set against the same backdrop. Might be a bit close to home for some, given the year that was 2020.
The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam, #2)
The times and species have been changing at a rapid pace, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly…
George Orwell (1949)
I’ve felt myself long overdue to read this classic, and I found myself surprised at how terrifying it was. Somehow I guess maybe the fact that it was written over 70 years ago would mean that it was a bit tamer than some of the other dystopian stuff I’ve read. I was completely wrong. This one takes the cake, and seems more relevant than ever and dangerously familiar to some political trends we are seeing around the world. Particularly around fake news…. I highly recommend it, if you can stomach dark stuff.
Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eight-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real…
Stories of the North
Jack London (1965)
An entertaining and light set of short stories of the Klondike goldrush era in the Yukon and Alaska. Some of the language and ideas around race are outdated given that it was written in 1965, but the stories provide a good historic insight into that time, and how brutal an environment it was both physically and socially. A good one to pick up and put down over a long period.
Stories of the North
The Klondike — land of cold and gold, of cowards and heroes, battling the cruel law of the North: Kill or be killed…
Margaret Atwood (2013)
The final in the trilogy of the same name, I enjoyed this book the most out of the three, as it drew seemingly disparate characters, contexts, and geographic locations together. I won’t give away much aside from saying that somehow I found solace in reading about the power of different types of people working together, while we were in the midst of a real-life global pandemic. Read the other two first if you’re going to read this!
MaddAddam (MaddAddam, #3)
A man-made plague has swept the earth, but a small group survives, along with the green-eyed Crakers — a gentle species bio-engineered to replace humans…
Brave New World
Aldous Huxley (1932/1997)
I figured that while I was reading dystopian classics, I might as well knock this one off my list. It took me a long while to get into this book, and the language is at times challenging to read (think of how people spoke in 1932), but once I got into the swing of the story, I enjoyed it. A good read for those who are concerned about the ways in which fake news and social media algorithms are influencing the ways in which we think.
Brave New World
Largely set in a futuristic World State, inhabited by genetically modified citizens and an intelligence-based social hierarchy, the novel anticipates…
The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula Le Guin (1969)
Again, this one took me a long time to get into because there are so many new concepts and terminology to wrap your head around. But I loved it once I got a good way through the story began to take shape. The best thing about this book is it’s super interesting concepts around gender, as it’s set in a world where the people change genders based on where they are in their fertility cycle. Well ahead of its time!
I have a set a new goal for myself for my book reading in 2021, to read only books written by people of colour and indigenous folks, and preferably women or queer POCs. I have a hefty list of amazing books, but if you have additional favourites to recommend, please drop me a comment. I’m also keen to extend this goal to more forms of content I’m consuming, so recommendations of films, blogs, news websites, YouTube/Vimeo channels, etc are also very welcome!
Happy reading, and happy holidays to all!
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