17 October 2019 by Alex Stewart
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings may be synonymous with New Zealand as a result of the film versions of the books, but they are more creations of the English countryside than New Zealand's epic landscape. There is, however, a range of exceptional books that are about New Zealand or were written by outstanding Kiwi authors, which will introduce you to the history, culture and people of the islands before you set off on a New Zealand holiday. And, they're all recommended by our specialists.
Christina Thompson's Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All is the dramatically titled account of the cultural collision between Westerners and native Maoris, from Abel Tasman's discovery of New Zealand in 1642 to the author's unlikely romance with a Maori man. Intriguing and unpredictable, the book explores centuries friction and fascination. Of course, there is a long history of colonialism and cultural misunderstanding on the islands, and to learn more, we recommend To Auckland by the Ganges by Robert M Grogans. This book details the four-month journey settlers used to take by boat to reach New Zealand from Britain, based on the journals kept by the author on his voyage in 1863.
For a good general introduction, see the Traveller's History of New Zealand, which captures the basics of Kiwi history and culture, or The Penguin History of New Zealand.
For a country that inspires so many travellers and tales there's a dearth of travel literature on New Zealand - however, what does exist is well worth reading. Try A Land of Two Halves by Joe Bennett, which sees the itinerant author hitch around the country with an eye for oddity and an ear for conversation. Josie Dew took to two wheels in Long Cloud Ride and spent nine months pedalling 10,000km through the country in order to get to grips with the Kiwi psyche, whilst Andrew Stevenson tramped throughout the country in Kiwi Tracks.
The nation's most internationally renowned author is probably Katherine Mansfield. Her concise, penetrating examinations of human behaviour, set in New Zealand, provide a superb insight into the country at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield is a great place to start. CK Stead, Frank Sargeson and Maurice Gee are also local writers with a keen sense of place.
There are also a number of authors who provide searing insights into what life is like in contemporary New Zealand for the Maori. The highly prolific Maori author Witi Ihimaera is one such. His novels The Matriarch, Tangi, Bulibasha and The Whale Rider are all widely available. Another is Patricia Grace, whose novel Potiki is an emotive, poetic account of a Maori community coming to terms with its place in modern New Zealand whilst its land is threatened by developers.
Keri Hulme's haunting tale, The Bone People, set on the South Island's west coast, blends myth, mysticism and reality into a visionary fable and won the 1985 Booker Prize. Lloyd Jones was Booker-shortlisted for his novel Mister Pip, that dealt with an unreported war on a South Pacific Island. His other books, including Here at the end of the World We Learn to Dance and The Book of Fame, also provide engrossing insights into aspects of New Zealand.
Ian Cross's account of a boy trapped between warring parents, The Good Boy, is rated as New Zealand's equivalent to Catcher in the Rye. 2013's sensation was Elanor Catton's Man Booker Prize winner The Luminaries, a clever and intricately weaved tale of fortune and intrigue in the pioneering gold rush of 1866. Last but by no means least, look out for Alan Duff, whose brutal, passionate tale of 1970s Maori living in South Auckland, Once Were Warriors, is probably his best-known book.
A country as photogenic as New Zealand was bound to produce high quality photographic and coffee table type books. The best are published localley by Craig Potton. Look out in particular for New Zealand Horizons and New Zealand Landscapes by Andris Apse and Moment and Memory and Lost in New Zealand by Craig Potton. Classic Walks of New Zealand also by Craig Potton and Classic Tramping in New Zealand by Shaun Burnett are lavishly illustrated inspirational guides to the outdoors. Keep an eye out as well for Explore, Dream, Discover, the culmination of Jeff Drewitz's 20 year photographic journey through the country.
Every major publisher has a guide to New Zealand and there are strong titles available from Footprint, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides amongst others. If you want to make like the locals and go tramping though, grab a copy of New Zealand's Great Walks, published by Trailblazer.
Those interested in wildlife should start with the Bradt guide to New Zealand Wildlife and New Zealand Wildlife by Julian Fitter, whilst twitchers should seek out the Reed Guide to New Zealand Birds.
Anyone planning to visit New Zealand should dive into local literature first - there's a wealth of warmth and humour, history and cultural intermingling that make up the Kiwi worldview.