Live action shot of Platoma novae-zelandiae, a seaweed which features in New Zealand Seaweeds: An illustrated guide by Wendy Nelson. Photograph by Malcolm Francis.

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias previews the year ahead in New Zealand publishing.

There are some very, very good New Zealand books due to be published in 2020 but also a lot of fairly whatever ones and in general it looks like the year ahead in local publishing is destined to be pretty average, mate.

Where’s the new overview of Pacific or New Zealand history that has been years in the making, and is a masterpiece of scholarship and good thinking? Where’s the new novel by Eleanor Catton? Ooh, look, there’s the old novel by Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries featured on the Nielsen best-seller list this month, even though it was published in 2013.

But there are some big names (CK Stead, Fiona Kidman) and big projects (the concluding volume of Peter Simpson’s study of Colin McCahon) and a big secret. Rumour has it there’s a new biography or memoir in the works of a major, much-loved figure in New Zealand public life. Their identity is being kept under wraps. It’s going to be huge, maybe. Lorde? Taika? Beaudy? It’s not Jacinda Ardern, anyway, although a new biography – another new biography, warm on the heels of Michelle Duff’s panegyric – is due soon, about March, by Madeleine Chapman.

There are definitely going to be some absolutely beautiful art books. There is definitely going to be one new collection of poetry which will generate a good deal of excitement among some youngish people in Wellington. And there is definitely  – I think, anyway; I mean I promised to do it so I suppose it’ll happen – going to be a kind of sequel to my true-crime book The Scene of the Crime.

Throughout, ReadingRoom will do its best to cover, to review, to feature in some which way the works of genius or mere competence that are about to creep into bookstores across the nation. To the specifics; as follows, a preview of the publishing highlights in New Zealand in 2020.


Right this second the novel sitting at the top of the Nielsen best-seller chart for New Zealand fiction is a book that could make its author very, very big on the international market: In The Clearing, the latest crime novel by Melbourne-based author JP Pomare. His last book Call Me Evie was one of the biggest sellers of 2019 in New Zealand, and huge in Australia, too. He’s got a good touch, he knows how to creep readers out, and chooses good subjects. In The Clearing is based on an Australian cult which went horribly wrong.

The short story! It’s everywhere these days. Otago University Press republish two classic collections, The Gorse Blooms Pale and The General and the Nightingale, by Dan Davin, the Southland-born writer who became a major figure in 20th century New Zealand writing even though he lived and wrote in England.


Allen & Unwin publish Auckland clinical psychologist Gwendoline Smith’s latest self-helper, The Book of Overthinking, which uses cognitive behavioural therapy to detail a specific, destructive form of worry and rumination. She knows what she’s talking about.

Penguin Random House publish Shakti, the new novel by Wellington author Rajorshi Chakraborti. Advance blurbology: “Amid a climate of right-wing nationalist politics, three Indian women find themselves wielding powers that match their wildest dreams.”

Victoria University Press publish Head Girl, the debut poetry collection by Wellington writer Freya Daly Sadgrove. I published her work in The Friday Poem (Luncheon Sausage Books, 2018); she’s an exuberant, very funny, quite self-lacerating writer, with a sense of drama and flair – last year she staged Show Ponies, in which poets performed alongside dancers. It sounds lame af but it worked, it went off, people loved it and she’s going to stage another of these extravaganzas later in the year at Featherston.


Seaweed! It’s awesome, and the proof is in the beautiful images collected in New Zealand Seaweeds: An illustrated guide by Wendy Nelson, published by Te Papa. Over 150 genera and 250 key species are described, with each entry illustrated by underwater photographs as well as herbarium scans, microscopic photographs and reproductions of celebrated botanical artist Nancy Adams’ paintings.

Best-selling novelist Nicky Pellegrino returns with what appears to be a tearjerker: Tiny Pieces of Us, published by Hachette. Advance blurbology: “Born with a heart defect, Vivienne Clark’s life was saved by a transplant. Now a journalist, she doesn’t allow herself to think about the donor, the boy who died so she could live; she can’t bear to. Then she meets his mother.”

The short story! It’s everywhere. Penguin celebrate the 80th birthday of Wellington author Dame Fiona Kidman with a new collection, All The Way To Summer.


The best, most beautiful art book of 2019 was Peter Simpson’s magnificent study of Colin McCahon, There Is Only One Direction; Auckland University Press brings out the second volume, This the Promised Land, which will likely be the best, most beautiful art book of 2020.


Jesus! After the #turnardern fiasco which greeted the book on Jacinda Ardern, what’s going to be the seething right-wing response when HarperCollins publish Know Your Place, by Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman? #burngolriz?

Auckland University Press has a terrific month, with You Have a Lot to Lose, the second, keenly anticipated memoir by CK Stead, covering the years 1956-1986 (awesome cover – the guy looks like he’s on his way to fight a bear); Portraits of the Artists, devoted to Marti Friedlander photographs of such as Frank Sargeson and the Finns; and The Mirror Steamed Over, an intriguing book on Billy Apple by New Zealand’s finest art writer, Anthony Byrt.


There’s a biography of good old Stan Walker, a beautiful art book devoted to the lush garden paintings of Karl Maughan, a collection of essays by Tina Makereti, a memoir by the wonderfully lyrical writer Miro Bilbrough (I’m in it; I hope she’s kind), a novel by Patrick Evans, a study of women’s political rights in New Zealand by Jennie Coleman, and HarperCollins claim they will publish my book, provisionally titled Missing Persons, a  collection of my crime journalism, revised and reshaped as a book-length narrative.  I daresay I best finish it.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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