This is the first of what will be an occasional series on “Books to Read Before You Visit…” I always like to prepare for a visit to a new country by reading as much as possible. Not just history and guidebooks, but fiction as well: I find that novels and short stories can often bring a place to life more vividly than a guidebook. I’m starting with New Zealand, a fabulous country that I will be returning to next year. There are LOTS of books I could include in this list, but here is my personal selection.
History and Travel Guides
My Lonely Planet guide always accompanies me to New Zealand. It is easy to use, with lots of practical information and articles about history, culture and food. It also has all sorts of interesting snippets like “Waitaki wine on the way up” and “Glowworm magic”. Lonely Planet guides are also available in pdf form, which some people find preferable when travelling.
I’m a big fan of the Traveller’s History series. These give you a broad overview of the history of a country, helping you to make sense of contemporary society and of the historic sites that you visit during your trip. A Traveller’s History of New Zealand & South Pacific Islands by John H Chambers (2003) is particularly good in putting New Zealand into context as one of many Pacific islands colonised by Europeans.
New Zealand Authors
Probably the best known New Zealand author is Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), who made her reputation through writing short stories. Although she spent most of her adult life away from her homeland many of the stories focus on New Zealand in the early 20th century and the often precarious position of the Maori people.
The Garden Party and Other Short Stories The Garden Party and Other Stories includes one of Katherine Mansfield’s longest stories At The Bay, as well as The Garden Party, both set in New Zealand. If you enjoy these stories, you might also like to visit the Katherine Mansfield House in Wellington, her childhood home.
Another notable 20th century writer is Janet Frame (1924-2004), who wrote both novels and short stories. Like Katherine Mansfield, she lived in Europe for a while, but she later returned to live in New Zealand. She battled against mental illness for much of her life, and this is often reflected in her writing. The Carpathians (1988) was her last work, a magical realist novel featuring an American living in New Zealand. If you prefer short stories, try The Daylight And The Dust (2010), a collection of stories written at different times during her career.
Patricia Grace (1937- ) is a prominent Maori writer. She has written a mixture of novels, short stories and children’s books. Her first collection of stories (and the first published collection by any Maori author) was Waiariki (1975).
KerirHulme (1947- ) was the first New Zealander to win the Booker Prize. Her novel The Bone People (1984) is a haunting portrayal of the landscape of New Zealand and of the Maori people.
Maurice Gee (1931- ) is well known in New Zealand, but less so internationally. He has written for children and adults, many of his books being murder mysteries such as Going West (1994). (Many of Maurice Gee’s books are now out of print, but they can be picked up secondhand or in e-book format.)
Eleanor Catton (1985- ) is another Booker Prize winner. The Luminaries (2013) is a cleverly constructed mystery, building up a picture of Christchurch and the South Island during the 19th century. What I liked most was the grand sweep of history, covering the gold mining industry, the attempts to build a British style city and the mix of different races and cultures.
Rose Tremain (1943- ) is actually a British author, but The Colour (2004) is set in 19th century New Zealand. It focuses on the Gold Rush and the hardships of the gold miners and their families.
Lord of the Rings
OK, so this one is a bit of a cheat! JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of The Rings (1954-55) aren’t about New Zealand at all. But that didn’t stop the five films of the series from being filmed there, inspiring many more people to discover the country’s stunning countryside for themselves.
If you don’t want to read the books you might like to get yourself into the mood for your trip by watching the films and enjoying the wide empty landscapes. You can continue the adventure if you find yourself near Matamata, south of Auckland. From here you can take a tour of the nearby Hobbiton Movie Set. You may also spot reminders of Middle Earth elsewhere, like the Tourist Information Office in Matamata which looks suspiciously like a hobbit hole.
This list is just a few suggestions from the many available. If you have a favourite that I haven’t included, please let me know in the comments below.
The links in this list take you to the Amazon website or the Lonely Planet shop. Amazon and Lonely Planet pay me a small commission on any sales; these help to cover the costs of running this blog.