1 Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $38)

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

Shortlisted for the fiction prize at this year’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards.

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

Shortlisted for the fiction prize at this year’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards.

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

Cultural commentator JJ Harper (born 2000) dared to contribute that rarest of things in his polemic at ReadingRoom this week – critical comments on New Zealand writing. No doubt it led to a good old widespread gripe; there’s an expectation that anything said about Aotearoa literature must only be supportive, nurturing, and, most infantilised of all, kind. The fantasy is that all local books are awesome and no one must say otherwise. (“Lest we should see where we are,” as per Auden, “Lost in a haunted wood”).

Anyway JJ’s piece was an excellent piece of writing and it concluded with insightful remarks on Greta and Valdin, a book which has only happily floated inside a bubble of feel-good comms: “Behind its breezy slice-of-life narrative is a self-glorifying statement on social justice. Fuelling its popularity is a media spin of ‘Important Queer Novel‘. But this is at odds with the book’s social context of petit-bourgeois artists and academics. While Reilly’s agenda is self-assured, it misses the beat by totally eschewing class in favour of identity politics. Ethnicity and immigrant narratives impose over her characters’ economic privilege…. I’m sure the book’s popularity is to do with the characters’ rich social lives and their extended family unit which is tightly bonded and feels responsible for and to each other. But their truer tensions are never scratched. Greta and Valdin is a macaroon of a book appealing to an audience in a globalised woke psychosis.”

5 Mrs Jewel and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press, $37)

Shortlisted for the fiction prize at this year’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards – and last week’s announcement has catapulted the author’s swashbuckling historical novel into the charts. When Sanders wrote a fascinating background story about her novel for ReadingRoom, detailing her researches into an 1866 shipwreck that saw 14 men and one woman live as castaways on a sub-Antarctic island, I wondered out loud in the introduction, “Is this the best historical novel of the year?” It may even be the novel of the year; the Ockham ceremony is held on May 17.

6 Harbouring by Jenny Pattrick (Penguin Random House, $37)

7 Poetry Aotearoa Yearbook 2023 by Tracey Slaughter (Massey University Press, $37)

8 Birnam Wood (hardback) by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $50)

A splendid hardback copy of Catton’s thriller has been offered these past two weeks in the ReadingRoom giveaway. One of the characters is a right-wing shock-jock munter based on Sean Plunkett; readers were asked to imagine the character’s fate in a piece of fiction of their own making. It led to very imaginative and cruel fantasies. Paul had him replaced by an AI right-wing shock-jock munter. Jo cast a judge sentencing the munter to being smothered by a matron in a blanket. Lynne also put him in court, charged with murder. Penelope consigned him to a sub-antarctic island: “No right of return.”

But the winner is Andrew Simmons, who very cleverly borrowed from the Evelyn Waugh masterpiece A Handful of Dust, and trapped the munter in a jungle with a chief named…Mr Braunias. There is no escape. There is only a fate worse than death: having to read a book out loud to the chief every day for the rest of his life. Andrew’s scene has the munter waking up from a drugged sleep, and Mr Braunias informing him that three would-be rescuers had come for him: “Three men from outside. New Zealanders. It is a pity you missed them. A pity for them, too, as they particularly wished to see you. But what could I do? You were so sound asleep. They had come all the way to find you, so—I thought you would not mind—as you could not greet them yourself, I gave them a little souvenir, your watch. They wanted something to take back to New Zealand where a reward is being offered for news of you. They were very pleased with it. And they took some photographs of the little cross I put up to commemorate your coming. They were pleased with that, too. They were very easily pleased. But I do not suppose they will visit us again, our life here is so retired… no pleasures except reading… I do not suppose we shall ever have visitors again… well, well, I will get you some medicine to make you feel better.

“Your head aches, does it not?… We will not have any Catton today… but tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. Let us read The Luminaries again. There are passages in that book I can never hear without the temptation to weep.”

A splendid hardback copy of Birnam Wood has been despatched to the imaginative and cruel Mr Simmons.

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

10 Always Italicise by Alice Te Punga Somerville (Auckland University Press, $24.99)

Shortlisted for the poetry prize at this year’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards.


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

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

3 Be Your Best Self by Rebekah Ballagh (Allen & Unwin, $32.99)

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

5 Fear by Byron C Clark (HarperCollins, $39.99)

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

7 A Forager’s Life by Helen Lehndorf (HarperCollins, $39.99)

This week’s ReadingRoom giveaway is a copy of a new book on foraging, described by Wendyl Nissen as, “‘Wonderful. A story that will have you looking at your neighbourhood with new intent.” The author wrote on Instagram recently, “Over recent years, I’ve started making large amounts of what I call ‘communitea’ – herbal tea blends made from whatever I can find in the 4412 postcode of Palmerston North, the postcode I live in. It’s an exercise in locavorism and sharing and fun. I dry things foraged and grown, cultivated and gifted, rub and snip them into a tea blend and then give most of it away at community events, like garden working bees, crop swaps and garden education activities. Some of the plants that I’ve used include: nettle, various mints, calendula, violet, rose, dandelion, lemon verbena, lemon balm, chamomile, kawakawa, plantain, pineapple weed, elderflowers, Mexican marigold, rose and more.”

Amazing. To enter the draw, email with the subject line in screaming caps I REALLY WANT THIS BOOK ABOUT THE JOYS OF FORAGING, and describe any kind of foraging – not necessarily for food; it could be firewood, or some other form of scavenging – that you have indulged in over the years with whatever result. Entries close on Sunday midnight, March 19.

8 Tales of a Vet Nurse by Jade Pengelly (HarperCollins, $39.99)

Like it says on the packet, tales of a vet nurse, such as: Luna the Greyhound and her fragile front legs, a tortoise in need of a prosthetic leg, Jock the Saint Bernard and his problematic eyelashes, Edward the Burmese cat and his extravagant diet, the forbidden feasts of Labradors, the dangers of x-raying prize-winning showjumpers, and other tales.

9 The Sharesies Guide to Investing by Brooke Roberts & Leighton Roberts & Sonya Williams (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

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

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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