We usually run the Nielsen BookScan New Zealand bestseller list on Fridays but replaced it with the first of four reviews of Birnam Wood


1 Kāwai by Monty Soutar (David Bateman, $39.99)

Farewell, then, to Soutar’s debut novel commanding the number one spot, a position it’s held since it was published in September but is surely about to surrender to the publishing behemoth known as Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. It’s been a hell of a ride for Kāwai, a historical novel set in Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1700s; it’s a book as completely Māori (there are no Pākehā) as Birnam Wood is completely Pākehā (there are no Māori); it’s a vast, ambitious, violent, physical read, and has deservedly been longlisted for the fiction prize at this year’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards. It could easily slip into the shortlist of four books. It could even go all the way and claim first place. It’s a sensation; it’s the biggest selling New Zealand novel of the past 12 months by a long stretch; it’s captured the public mood.

A sequel to Kāwai is expected later this year, further confirming 2023 as the Year of the Novel, with a huge stack of new releases from authors including Anna Smaill, Emily Perkins, Catherine Chidgey, Megan Nicol Reed, Becky Manawatu, Josie Shapiro, Fiona Farrell, Sue McCauley, Carl Nixon, Caroline Barron, Airana Ngarewa, and the author whose previous book was The Luminaries.

2 The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35)

Number two for the past three months; and now surely about to descend to number three, behind Kāwai and the publishing behemoth known as Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton.

3 Poor People With Money by Dominc Hoey (Penguin Random House, $37)

Along with short story collections by Maria Samuela and Colleen Maria Lenihan, this was the most surprising, and disappointing, omission from the Ockham fiction prize longlist. It’s sold real well to an audience who have enjoyed this tense crime noir set in Auckland and the Far North.

4 How to Loiter in a Turf War by Coco Solid (Penguin Random House, $28)

5 Eddy, Eddy by Kate de Goldi (Allen & Unwin, $29.99)

6 Greta and Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35)

7 Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $35)

8 A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura by Jessica Howland Kany (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $37.50)

Paula Morris from the faculty of arts at the University of Auckland recently engaged me to mentor a few book reviewers whose work will appear in a new site, the Aotearoa NZ Review of Books. It will launch in March. I commissioned one of the reviewers to write about A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura, a debut novel by American-born Jessica Howland Kany, who now lives on Rakiura Stewart Island. The mentoring was an interesting process with a fair bit of back and forth, and I really liked this paragraph in the third version, which gives a strong sense of the novel: “The author packs in a map of Rakiura Stewart Island, a Prologue, an Epilogue, Parts I – VI, Appendices A to F, notes to the author from her editor, the unrelenting fascination of the novel’s central character Maudie with the NZ vernacular (e.g. ‘rubber = eraser’, ‘office = establishment = rinser = boozer = the local = pub = bar,’ ‘tip = Kiwi for rubbish dump’), sentences packed to the gunwales with things maritime-related including fish, fishing gear, fishing boats, birds that eat fish, ways to cook fish, ways to cook birds that eat fish, large tracts of Rakiura-related musings, at least 10 different fonts (though not sure, lost count), dreams, dreams, more dreams, and clues, clues, more clues on buoys, buoys, more buoys.”

ReadingRoom has a free copy of A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura to give away. To enter the draw, email stephen11@xtra.co.nz with the subject line in screaming caps I WANT THIS NOVEL SET AT THE END OF THE WORLD and write any kind of paragraph (fiction, non-fiction, or a few lines of poetry if you must) set on Rakiura Stewart Island. I’ve not ever been there and frankly never really wanted to but please put me in the picture. The deadline is Thursday midnight, February 16.

Busy cover.

9 Harbouring by Jenny Pattrick (Penguin Random House, $36)

10 The Doctor’s Wife by Fiona Sussman (David Bateman, $37.99)


1 Straight Up by Ruby Tui (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

Back at number one – thanks to a new shipment of Tui’s memoir. The book had sold out pretty much everywhere and had begun to slip down the chart; a new print run had been whistled up, but sea freight, as everyone knows, is a dead loss if you want something in a hurry. Interest might well have flagged if this same fate had happened to another book but interest in Tui only ever remains high, and warm, and avid; it helps that Straight Up is an awesome read.

2 Wawata by Hinemoa Elder (Penguin Random House, $30)

3 Aroha by Hinemoa Elder (Penguin Random House, $30)

4 The Bookseller at the End of the World by Ruth Shaw (Allen & Unwin, $38.99)

5 Salad by Margo Flanagan & Rosa Flanagan (Allen & Unwin, $45)

6 Simple Fancy by Margo Flanagan & Rosa Flanagan (Allen & Unwin, $45)

7 Māori Made Easy Workbook 1/Kete 1 by Scotty Morrison (Penguin Random House, $25)

8 Māori Made Easy by Scotty Morrison (Penguin Random House, $38)

9 The Book of Feeling Blue by Gwendoline Smith (Allen & Unwin, $27.99)

A few years ago I went to the Auckland home of Murray Grindlay, former singer in the Underdog Blues Band, an almost impossibly groovy Kiwi guitar act from the 1960s (their cover of “All Your Love” by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers is a stately masterpiece), to interview him about the band’s 1968 LP cover which features in my book Cover Story: 100 beautiful, strange, and frankly incredible New Zealand album covers (Oratia Books, $50). The photo was taken on the fire escape at a theatre in Invercargill. Grindlay is wearing a kimono.

LP cover featured in Cover Story by Steve Braunias (Oratia Media, $50)

Anyway while he was being interviewed, Grindlay’s partner walked in, clinical psychologist and The Book of Feeling Blue self-help author Gwendoline Smith.

10 Tikanga by Keri Opai (Upstart Press, $39.99)

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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