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A New Zealand Reading List
History, Society and Politics

James Belich The New Zealand Wars (Penguin). An extraordinary, well-researched, and in-depth demolition job on the received version of the course and outcome of the colonial wars, which re-examines the Victorian and Maori interpretation of the conflict. A book for committed historians and those fanatically interested in the subject, since it gives more detail than most people will ever need to know.

 

Roger Booth Bruno (Canterbury University Press, NZ). A no-nonsense biography of Bruno Lawrence, a New Zealand film star, musician and icon who died of cancer in 1995. The book details his occasionally bizarre life and provides an interesting insight into the New Zealand film and entertainment industry.

 

Alistair Campbell Maori Legends (Viking Sevenseas, NZ). A brief retelling of selected stories in an accessible way with some evocative illustrations.

 

R.D. Crosby The Musket Wars (Reed). An account of the massive upsurge in inter-iwi conflict before the start of European colonization, that was exacerbated by the introduction of the musket and led to the death of 23 percent of the Maori population, a proportion far greater than that of Russian casualties in World War II.

 

Alan Duff Out of the Mist and Steam (Tandem Press). Duff, author of Once Were Warriors, has comprised a strangely vivid memoir of his life that falls short of autobiography but gives the reader a good idea where all the material for his novels came from.

 

A.K. Grant Corridors of Pua (Hazard Press, NZ). A light-hearted look at the turbulent and fraught political history of the country from 1984 to the introduction of MMP.

 

Tom Hewnham By Batons and Barbed Wire (o/p). A harrowing account of the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand that stirred up more social hatred than any other event and proved conclusively that there is more to New Zealand society than just a bunch of good blokes and "Hail fellow well met".

 

Hineani Melbourne Maori Sovereignty: The Maori Perspective (Hodder Headline); and its companion volume Maori Sovereignty: The Pakeha Perspective by Carol Archie (Hodder Headline). Everyone from grass-roots activists to statesmen get a voice in these two volumes, one airing the widely divergent Maori visions of sovereignty, the other covering the equally disparate pakeha view on the subject. They assume a fairly good understanding of Maori structures and recent New Zealand history, but are highly instructive nonetheless.

 

Claudia Orange The Story of the Treaty (Bridget Williams Books, NZ). A concise, illustrated exploration of the history and myths behind what many believe to be the most important document in New Zealand history, the Treaty of Waitangi. Well written but probably more than the casual traveller needs to know. Much the same criticism applies to the author's The Treaty of Waitangi (Allen & Unwin, NZ), which covers the lead-up to the signing, and the treaty's first sixty years.

 

Margaret Orbell A Concise Encyclopaedia of Maori Myth and Legend (Canterbury University Press, NZ). A fairly comprehensive rundown on many tales and their backgrounds that rewards perseverance even though it's a little dry.

 

Jock Phillips A Man's Country? The Image of the Pakeha Male (Penguin). Classic treatise on mateship and the Kiwi bloke. This thorough exploration ranges through the formative pioneering years, rugby, wartime camaraderie, the development of the family-man ideal and now Nineties man. It comes to life with the partial dismantling of the stereotype in the light of developments of the last thirty years.

 

Keith Sinclair The History of New Zealand (Penguin). A highly readable general history of New Zealand with comprehensive coverage of the social factors that have shaped the country, as well as the prime movers. Maori oral history gets a brief and informative look-in, and there's plenty on uneasy Maori–pakeha relations, but it's not been updated to take into account recent political changes and the Maori renaissance.

 

D.C. Starzecka (ed) Maori Art and Culture (British Museum Press). A kind of Maori culture primer, with concise and interesting coverage of Maori history, culture, social structure, carving and weaving, spiced up by excellent colour photos of artefacts from the British Museum's collection.

 

David Wilkie Year of the Dove (Quion Press, NZ). The edited diaries of a Kiwi anaesthetist who, after his divorce, volunteered to become a health professional in Vietnam during the war. It is a fascinating view of what happened to the man, how he fell in love and what on earth possessed the NZ government to support this well-documented tragedy.

 

Ross Wiseman The Spanish Discovery of New Zealand in 1576 (Discovery Press, NZ). Wiseman puts the case for pre-Abel Tasman European discovery based on wreckage from ships, Spanish-sounding Maori names and a clutch of other circumstantial but convincing evidence.

 

Fiction

Barbara Anderson All the Nice Girls (Vintage, NZ). A short, insightful comedy of manners-cum-romance about a naval officer's wife who goes off the rails in 1960s Auckland, by a writer known for her clarity and vibrancy.

 

Anonymous The Spin (Hodder Headline). Allegedly written by a government insider, hence the anonymity. Though Kiwis were shocked at the antics of barely disguised current politicians, it's all pretty tame by world standards, and only mildly revealing about the behaviour of elected representatives behind closed doors.

 

Graeme Aitken Fifty Ways of Saying Fabulous (Headline). An extremely funny book about burgeoning homosexuality in a young farm boy, who lives in a world where he is expected to clean up muck and play rugby. Brilliant and touching, but it loses its way in the final third and serves up an anticlimactic ending.

 

Eric Beardsley Blackball 08 (Collins, NZ). Entertaining and fairly accurate historical novel set in the West Coast coal-mining town of Blackball during New Zealand's longest ever labour dispute.

 

Graham Billing Forbrush and the Penguins (Oxford University Press, NZ). Described as the first serious novel to come out of Antarctica, it is the compelling description of one man's lonely vigil over a colony of penguins and the relationship he develops with them. Well worth the effort.

 

Samuel Butler Erewhon (Penguin). Gulliver's Travels-style journey to a utopian land, initially set in the Canterbury high country (where Butler ran a sheep station) but increasingly devoted to a satirical critique of mid-Victorian Britain.

 

Catherine Chigey In a Fishbone Church (Victoria University Press, NZ). A high-minded, broad-ranging novel spanning physical borders and time, learning about the past and dealing with it, maybe, by focusing on one family.

 

Ian Cross The God Boy (Penguin). This first and only novel of note from Ian Cross is widely considered to be New Zealand's equivalent to Catcher in The Rye. It concerns a young boy trapped between two parents who hate each other and describes the violent consequences of this situation.

 

Barry Crump A Good Keen Man; Hang on a Minute Mate; Bastards I Have Met; Forty Yarns and a Song (Hodder Headline). Just a few of the many New Zealand bushman books by the Kiwi equivalent of Banjo Patterson, who writes with great humour, tenderness and style about the male-dominated world of hunting, shooting, fishing, drinking, and telling tall stories. Worth reading for a picture of a New Zealand and a lifestyle that have now largely disappeared.

 

Sigrid Crump Bushwoman (Reed Books, NZ). Light, fresh and highly evocative account of a young German woman's solo travels on foot in New Zealand's backcountry during the 1960s and 70s. Infusing each page with her deep love of the Kiwi bush and fiercely independent spirit, Barry Crump's sister-in-law leaves you full of admiration.

 

Alan Duff Once Were Warriors (Virago/Random House). A shocking and violent book in the social realism, kitchen-sink drama style, set in 1970s south Auckland and adapted in the 1990s for Lee Tamahori's film of the same name. At its heart are good intentions concerning the predicament of urban Maori, but at times this is a clumsy book with an oddly upbeat ending. Duff has also published a sequel, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted (Virago/Random House), which lacks the conviction, immediacy and passion of the first novel.

 

Denis Edwards Connor is Free (Penguin). A pretty run-of-the-mill thriller, but it will divert you during long bus, train or plane journeys.

 

Fiona Farrell Six Clever Girls Who Became Famous Women (Penguin). A second novel of some quality and style has the girls of the title reunited in mid-life to confront what they have achieved and come to terms with their present and the possibilities of the future.

 

Janet Frame An Angel at My Table (Random House). Though undoubtedly one of New Zealand's most accomplished novelists, Frame is perhaps best known for this three-volume autobiography, dramatized in Jane Campion's film which, with wit and a self-effacing honesty, gives a wonderful insight into both the author and her environment. Her superb novels and short stories use humour alongside highly disturbing combinations of events and characters to overthrow readers' preconceptions. For starters, try Faces in the Water, Living in the Maniototo, Scented Gardens for the Blind, Daughter Buffalo and Owls Do Cry (all The Women's Press).

 

Maurice Gee Crime Story; Going West; Prowlers, The Plumb Trilogy (Penguin). These from an underrated but highly talented writer. Despite the misleadingly light titles, Gee's focus is social realism, taking an unflinching, powerful look at motivation and unravelling relationships.

 

Patricia Grace Potiki (Penguin). Poignant and poetic tale of a Maori community redefining itself through a blend of traditional and modern values, while its land is threatened by coastal development. Exquisite writing by an outstanding author who ranks among the finest in New Zealand today. She has also written several other novels and short-story collections.

 

Patricia Grace Baby No Eyes (Penguin). A magical weaving of actual, controversial events with stories of family history told from four points of view, where a deceased baby becomes a living character acting as the eyes of a stranger to further increase the reader's understanding of Maori ways and traditions.

 

Patricia Grace Dogside Story (Talanoa, NZ). Short-listed for the 2001 Booker Prize, this is a wonderful story concerning the power of the land and the power of whanau at the turn of the Millennium.

 

Peter Hawes Leapfrog with Unicorns (Vintage Press, NZ) and Tasman's Lay (Hazard Press, NZ). Two from the unsung hero, cult figure and probably only member of the absurdist movement in New Zealand, who writes with great energy, wit and surprising discipline about almost anything that takes his fancy. It's not much of a secret that Peter is also W.P. Hearst who has written the not-to-be-missed Inca Girls Aren't Easy (Vintage), a series of joyous, sad and slippery tales.

 

Stuart Hoar The Hard Light (Penguin). A black novel that begins in Dunedin and travels to Europe in Word War II. The characters are uniformly self-destructive, the conclusions bleak and yet it is strangely compelling with just a wisp of hope in the last few sentences.

 

Keri Hulme The Bone People (Picador). Celebrated winner of the 1985 Booker Prize, and a wonderful first novel set along the wild beaches of the South Island's West Coast. Mysticism, myth and earthy reality are transformed into a haunting tale peopled with richly drawn characters.

 

Witi Ihimaera Bulibasha – King of the Gypsies (Penguin). The best introduction to one of the country's finest Maori authors. A rollicking good read, energetically exploring the life of a rebellious teenager in 1950s rural New Zealand, where two mighty sheep-shearing families are locked in battle. It's an intense look at adolescence, cultural choices, family ties and the abuse of power, culminating in a masterful twist. Look out also for the excellent The Matriarch (Penguin) and The Uncle Story (Talanoa, NZ) by the same author.

 

Phil Kawana Dead Jazz Guys (Huia Publishers, NZ). A relatively new kid on the block, writing short stories about the young urban Maori, family, drugs and sex. Poignant and intelligent writing in a collection of mixed quality.

 

Fiona Kidman The Book of Secrets (Picador). Historical novel tracing one family's heritage through the reclusive granddaughter of a Scot who left the highlands with commanding preacher Norman McLeod, eventually ending up in Northland's Waipu.

 

Elizabeth Knox The Vintner's Luck (Victoria University Press). A very curious book indeed that for no great reason became an international best seller, all about "a man, his vineyard, love, wine and angels."

 

Shonagh Koea The Grandiflora Tree (Penguin). A savagely witty yet deeply moving study of the conventions of widowhood, with a peculiar love story thrown in. First novel from a journalist and short-story writer renowned for her astringent humour.

 

Deborah Nourse Lattimore Punga: The Goddess of Ugly (School and Library Binding, NZ). A pacey, lively and beautifully illustrated story, telling of two sisters trying to learn the beautiful haka, which incorporates Maori legend from an outsider's point of view.

 

Katherine Mansfield The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Penguin). All 73 short stories sit alongside 15 unfinished fragments in this 780-page tome. Concise yet penetrating examinations of human behaviour in apparently trivial situations, often transmitting a painfully pessimistic view of the world, and startlingly modern for their time.

 

Ngaio Marsh Opening Night; Artists in Crime; Vintage Murder (Fontana). Just a selection from the doyenne of New Zealand crime fiction. Since 1934 she has been airing her anglophile sensibilities and killing off innumerable individuals in the name of entertainment, before solving the crimes with Inspector Allen. Perfect mindless reading matter for planes, trains and buses. A recently published collection of five of her novels within one cover is sufficient to exemplify her talents and keep you occupied on a half-way-round-the-world journey.

 

Ronald Hugh Morrieson Came a Hot Friday (OUP). Superb account of the idiosyncrasies of country folk and the two smart spielers who enter their lives, in a comedy thriller focusing on crime and sex in a small country town.

 

John Mulgan Man Alone (Penguin). Seminal and soberly written boy's-own novel about one man's restless and peripatetic times working the New Zealand back blocks between the wars, as the country lurched from its pioneering days into the modern world. First published in 1939, it is often regarded as one of the first truly Kiwi novels and had a huge influence on New Zealand writing, its evocation of the Kiwi male quickly becoming an archetype.

 

Vincent O'Sullivan Let the River Stand (Penguin). Deftly conjuring the minutiae of homestead and rural school life in a Waikato farming community of the 1930s, Sullivan weaves disparate tales around the life of his gawky anti-hero, Alex. Tragic, humorous and captivating. Believers to the Bright Coast (Penguin) is O'Sullivan's disappointing follow-up and little more than an impenetrable confusion repeating the themes and obsessions of the first.

 

Emily Perkins Not Her Real Name (Picador). Sub-Mansfield short-story writer who inexplicably picked up an award for this. Though lacking the subtlety and incisiveness of the master, this uneven collection shows some promise. Sadly, however, this promise subsequently failed to materialize in her first novel, Leave Before You Go (Picador).

 

Frank Sargeson The Stories of Frank Sargeson (Penguin). Though not well-known outside New Zealand, Sargeson is a giant of Kiwi literature. His writing, from the 1930s to the 1980s, is incisive and sharply observed, at its best in dialogue, which is always true to the metre of New Zealand speech. This work brings together some of his finest short stories. Once is Enough, More than Enough and Never Enough! (all Penguin) make up the complete autobiography of a man sometimes even more colourful than his characters; Michael King has written a fine biography, Frank Sargeson: A Life (Viking).

 

Maurice Shadbolt Strangers and Journeys (Hodder/Atheneum). On publication in 1972 this became a defining novel in New Zealand's literary ascendancy and its sense of nationhood, putting Shadbolt in the same league as Australia's Patrick White. A tale of two families of finely wrought characters, whose lives interweave through three generations. Very New Zealand, very human and not overly epic. Later works, which have consolidated Shadbolt's reputation, include Mondays Warriors, Season of the Jew and The House of Strife (Hodder/Atheneum).

 

C.K. Stead The Singing Whakapapa (Penguin). Highly regarded author of many books and critical essays who is sadly little known outside New Zealand and Australia. A combination of a powerful historical novel about an early missionary and a dissatisfied modern descendant who is searching for meaning in his own life by exploring the past. An excellent and engaging read. His 1998 collection of short stories, The Blonde with Candles in her Hair, was less critically acclaimed, but still entertaining and readable.

 

Paul Thomas Old School Tie (Hodder Headline). Smart thriller with some neat comedic touches but a bit clichéd, just like his last book, Inside Dope (Hodder Headline), and lacking any really sympathetic characters. Another relaxing read, ideal while waiting for a bus.

 

Damien Wilkins The Miserables (Faber). One of the best novels to come out of New Zealand, shorn of much of the colonial baggage of many writers. It is surprisingly mature for a first novel, sharply evoking middle-class New Zealand life from the 1960s to the 1980s through finely wrought characters.