10 of the Best New Zealand Books

Caroline Hickman

By Caroline Hickman

4 minute read

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These New Zealand authors have managed to capture historic events, moments and works of fiction that demonstrate New Zealand’s personality to its full extent. If you’re looking for some ideas of books to read before you visit New Zealand, then picking one or two from this list will give you an interesting insight into our rich cultural heritage. Here are just a few of the best New Zealand books.

1. The Bone People by Keri Hulme (1984)

It’s not a light and easy read, but after 12 years in the making, it deserves a bit of time to get the teeth into. The ambitious story follows three characters as they struggle very hard to find out what love is and how to find it - all amidst tackling the clash between the Māori and European people. It’s not a romantic story as such, in fact, it’s filled with violence, fear, and twisted emotions, but it’s beautifully and poignantly written. 

“In this novel, New Zealand's people, its heritage and landscape are conjured up with uncanny poetry and perceptiveness.”Sunday Times

The author, Keri Hulme, won New Zealand’s Pegasus Prize for Literature (1984) for the book. It then went on to win the prestigious Booker Prize (1985).

2. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013)

Another award winner, this incredible work of fiction won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and was recently made into a BBC/TVNZ mini-series. The novel showcases a piece of Victorian-era New Zealand during the 1860’s gold rush period. The story follows Walter Moody, a young man trying his luck in the country’s goldfields. On arrival in Hokitika on the South Island’s West Coast, he finds himself in the midst of a series of unexplained events, from the vanishing of a wealthy man to the discovery of a large fortune in a drunkard’s home. it is one of the best books about New Zealand and truly captures life on the West Coast goldfields.

3. A Good Keen Man by Barry Crump (1960)

This book is one of the most read books in our history! It’s a hilarious take on life in New Zealand and a great representation of our typical New Zealand ‘bloke’. You’ll find yourself transported to the rugged backcountry as you discover what it takes for a young New Zealand man to master the art of deer culling and being a good bushman.

4. Pounamu Pounamu by Witi Ihimaera (1972)

Witi Ihimaera wrote this book in 1972 and is one of our most famous Māori authors. In fact, his novel Whale Rider was made into a very successful movie. Pounamu Pounamu is well thought of as a literary classic and is made up of a series of short stories that capture the intersection between Māori culture, tradition and contemporary family life in 1960s New Zealand. The story explores what it’s like to be a New Zealander from a Māori perspective.

5. The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King (2003)

New Zealand may indeed have been one of the last places to be settled by humankind, but there are still many historic gems to uncover. This book offers you one of the most comprehensive narratives of the country’s journey from colonization to independence and all the cultural, social phenomena that came with it. If you’d like to learn more about our history, this is one of the best books about New Zealand.

6. Squashed Possums: Off the Beaten Track in New Zealand by Jonathan Tindale (2015)

OK, so now for something a bit more light-hearted! For a spot of travel inspiration, you can’t beat this. The book follows the adventures and mishaps of Tindale during a year spent in New Zealand. His story follows his life as he makes his home in a caravan, dubbed the Squashed Possums, as he gets a taste of life in the wilderness across all four seasons – including the coldest winter the country had experienced in decades. Not the time to be in a caravan!

7. Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff (1990)

This is a heavy story but an important one to be told. Once Were Warriors is a bestselling novel and was made into a movie with the same name. Alan Duff’s incredibly raw depiction of domestic violence and the social struggles of the Māori population is what makes this book a force to be reckoned with. The story follows the Heke family and conveys the relationship between tradition and an overall loss of a sense of place.

8. The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox (1998)

One of the most famous works by award-winning New Zealand novelist Elizabeth Knox. The Vintner’s Luck is an unconventional love story set in 17th Century France. A young vintner comes face-to-face with a mysterious angelic figure, and the angel becomes his main counsel and protector as life’s tribulations, from marriage to the impact of the Napoleonic Wars, unravel around him.

9. Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy by Lynley Dodd (1983)

A brilliant kids book! If you haven’t read this one to your kids or grandkids then bag yourself a copy now. This is the first (and most famous) book out of Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary series. Hairy Maclary is a Scottish Terrier dog who gets in all kinds of shenanigans with his friends. In Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, you’ll be introduced to the characteristic rhyming patterns and colourful illustrations that have made these books a favourite among Kiwis of all generations.

10. A Kiwi Year: Twelve Months in the Life of New Zealand Kids by Tania McCartney & Tina Snerling (2017)

In this gorgeous children’s book, the New Zealand identity is captured through the main characters Charlie, Ruby, Oliver, Mason and Kaia, who each represent a different cultural background. You’ll travel with them on an illustrated journey through the year and learn more about the country’s celebrations, traditions and events. You’ll discover more about our modern-day culture, heritage and the everyday life of kids around the nation.

Now take your pick and get reading! Let us know what you think and if there are any other books we should add to the list.

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