8 Great Books Set in New Zealand That We Love

8 Great Books Set in New Zealand That We Love

Monday, 18 October, 2021

New Zealand is such a magical place, it’s the stand-in for Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings films. There are lush swaths of green, snow-capped mountains, stunning beaches, and fjords carved by glaciers.

The people who populate these landscapes are equally as compelling, a mix of Māori community and non-native people from Asia, the Netherlands, the UK, Australia, and beyond. One of the most outstanding characteristics of Kiwis — that’s the name New Zealanders call themselves — is their respect for nature and each other. They even granted the legal rights of a person to the Whanganui River to recognize its importance: ‘We see the river as a living entity that carries our ancestors, that carries our memories as a metaphor for our history.’

Breathtaking nature populated with interesting, (mostly) good-hearted people is a pretty great place to set a story.

Here are eight set in New Zealand that took us there on the page: a moving essay collection, two compelling memoirs of non-kiwis living in New Zealand, a novel about the 1860 gold rush, a tale of Māori mythology, a fantasy novel set in Wellington, and two charming mystery novels set in the Māori community.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast New Zealand: Kiwis, Majestic Scenery, and Māori Mythology.


The Colour - Rose Tremain

The Colour
> Rose Tremain

The wilds of New Zealand are not a nice place for a lady to find herself in the 1860s — but, it turns out, Harriet Blackstone is no ordinary lady. When her husband gets caught up in the gold rush fever of hunting for ‘the colour,’ she finds her own well of strength she never knew she possessed.

When the story begins, newlyweds Joseph and Harriet have recently emigrated from England to New Zealand with Joseph’s mother in tow. It should be an optimistic and exciting time: new land, new opportunity. But it soon becomes clear that all three of them are fleeing from events in their past, more than they’re running toward something fresh and good. And now the three of them are stuck with each other. In a flimsy house on a windy bluff. Desperately trying to scrape a living out of the hard-packed soil.

When Joseph discovers a glimmer of gold in his creekbed, it becomes a desperate secret and a dangerous catalyst for everything that happens next.

Author Rose Tremain weaves authentic details into the story, fully immersing us in the grit and perils of the gold rush days. We meet scam artists and hustlers, good-hearted miners, tribal Māori, some settlers who are decent, and many who are not. The action travels through real-life locations on New Zealand’s South Island: Christchurch, the Southern Alps, the mining towns of towns of Kaniere and Hokitika. And against this beautiful and brutal background, Harriet’s story unfolds. {more}

She felt her spirits falter. She began to think – for the first time since deciding to marry Joseph – that she should have stayed in England, sitting in her governess’s chair, with her pencils and her books, with children she was able to grow fond of, with a father who loved her. Only the sight of the distant mountains, the sheer size and beauty and mystery of them, kept her from falling into a deep melancholy. When the spring came, Harriet promised herself, she would go into the mountains – with a strong horse if she had one by then, or with the donkey, or even on foot. She would go into the mountains alone and rediscover her willingness to continue with this New Zealand adventure. — Rose Tremain

Can You Tolerate This?: Essays - Ashleigh Young

Can You Tolerate This?
> Ashleigh Young

Ashleigh Young was born and raised Te Kuiti, a town of 5000 on New Zealand’s North Island and the ‘Sheep Shearing Capital of the World.’ Her essays, read together in a rush inspired by their urgency and lyricism, form a coming-of-age story that’s both personal and universally affecting.

In one essay, we meet the chiropractor who’s routine question Can you tolerate this? inspired the book’s title. It’s a heartrending piece of writing about egoism and the now. Equally moving is the story about her brother’s music career and the punk rock scene in their hometown. There are also tales of Japanese shut-ins, a French postman who crafted a stone fortress by hand, teenage yearning for Paul McCartney, falling in and out of love, and the double-edged sword of self-improvement projects — all set against the backdrop of New Zealand’s beauty and isolation.

Young is both a poet and an essayist. If you’d like to meet a New Zealander with whom you could become fast friends, this book is a fantastic place to start. {more}

Was there any story I could tell that was truly certain? Write your way toward an understanding, a tutor had told me in a creative writing class during my third year of university. But what if you went backward and wrote yourself away from the understanding? Was it better than never to have started at all? If you were uncertain, should you make the understanding up - construct a meaningful-sounding statement so that your reader wouldn’t feel that you’d strung them along, wasted their time? — Ashleigh Young

Colour Scheme - Ngaio Marsh

Colour Scheme
> Ngaio Marsh

Ah, the resort area of Wai-ata-tapu in New Zealand. Mud baths, hot springs, the majesty of volcanic Rangi’s Peak, a Māori village, and… oops! murder. Welcome to the irresistibly sinister world of Ngaio Marsh, the Kiwi Queen of Crime.

It’s 1942, and the War has made its way south to the waters around New Zealand. Retired Colonel Claire, a nice fellow (and terrible businessman), runs a hot springs spa with his wife with little enthusiasm and not much more success. The resort is on the verge of being taken over by Maurice Questing, a pushy gasbag who offends just about everyone he meets — and who may or may not be a Nazi spy.

Between soaks in the mud baths and uncomfortable communal meals, we get to know the family and spa guests in all their flawed and suspicious glory. Because this is a Golden Age crime story, it’s not long before there are mysterious happenings in this previously soothing patch of New Zealand real estate, including a ship torpedoed in the bay, mysterious flashing lights, unexplained absences, and a disagreement about sacred Māori artifacts.

Marsh considered this to be her best-written novel; it’s much beloved for its rich setting, well-drawn characters, and notes of authenticity regarding life during wartime. {more}

The road corkscrewed its way in and out of a gully and along a barren stretch of downland. On its left the coast ran freely northwards in a chain of scrolls, last interruptions in its firm line before it tightened into the Ninety Mile Beach. The thunder of the Tasman Sea hung like a vast rumour on the freshening air, and above the margin of the downs, Rangi’s Peak was slowly erected. ‘That’s an ominous-looking affair,’ said Gaunt. ‘What is it about these hills that gives them an air of the fabulous? They are not so very odd in shape, not incredible like the Dolomites or imposing like the Rockies — not, as you point out in your superior way, Dikon, really mountains at all. Yet they seem to be pregnant with some tiresome secret. What is it?’ — Ngaio Marsh

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All - Christina Thompson

Part memoir, part history, this remarkable book is both a charming love story — between an American woman and a Māori man — and a look at what happened when European colonialism collided with the Māori culture in the 18th century. Who doesn’t want their history lessons served with a side of romance?!

Author Christina Thompson is a charming narrator and an astute observer of her own surroundings and the perils of history. Through the lens of her relationship with her husband Seven, she explores all the facets of the adage ‘opposites attract’ to charming effect. And — lucky us! — we meet her new extended family. As Christina gets to know his big, boisterous crew, we’re taken inside their Māori home and immersed in this new-to-her culture: tattoos and tradition, joviality, a sense of community, and overwhelmingly, the importance of family.

This story travels through time and around the world, from Australia to Hawaii to tribal New Zealand — to understand the past and find a sense of home. Thompson is in love with adventure and life and ultimately, Seven — and you will be, too. {more}

It’s easy to be critical of pioneers, as easy as it was a hundred years ago to worship them. Where once we saw their bravery, their self-sacrifice, their intrepid spirit, we now see only their greed, their brutality, their cunning manipulation of the truth. But a frontier is not that simple. It is less like a line than a zone of shadow, an area of give and take. It evolves and changes and the people who are in it change, too: how they think and what they say and what they mean when they say it. — Christina Thompson

Death by Water - Kerry Greenwood

Death by Water
> Kerry Greenwood

Phryne Fisher is a heroine we can believe in. An independent lady-detective in 1928 Melbourne, she’s an equal-opportunity lover and prone to wearing pants (all the easier to shimmy up a drainpipe). She keeps a pearl-handled pistol in her evening bag, and she is not here for any of your nonsense.

Although Phryne is very, very rich, she’s got the bleeding heart of a true socialist beating inside her haute couture frame, and she can dispatch thugs of all shapes, sizes, and creeds without mussing her perfect chin-length bob.

In this adventure (#15 in the series of 21; no need to read them in order), she’s sailing from Melbourne to New Zealand on a luxury cruise ship to catch a jewel thief. And, probably, to crack some skulls and break some hearts along the way.

Undercover on the S.S. Hinemoa, Phryne flaunts the Queen of Sapphires — a large, sparkly, irresistible stone — as bait to draw out the thief and soon learns that each of the passengers and crew is harboring secrets. Just as you’d expect with the Honorable Phyrne Fisher, it’s all very glamorous — and potentially deadly. {more}

Phryne was angry. The only way that an informed observer could tell was that her lips were a little tighter and her winged nostrils flared as though she was smelling out her prey. Phryne in that mood made Dot uncomfortable. Her employer was about to happen to someone. — Kerry Greenwood

The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep - H.G. Parry

For as long as he can remember, Charley Sutherland has had a magical ability he’s tried to hide: He can bring fictional characters from books into the real world. As you might expect, this gift has unintended consequences, not least of which is the resentment harbored by Charley’s beloved older brother Rob.

As an adult, Charley has mostly curbed his powers, but one day, a conjured character slips out of his control with unsettling and perilous results. Soon, he and the reluctantly recruited Rob learn of a Victorian-era street that exists in the shadows of Wellington. A big, life-changing adventure is afoot.

The story is a magic portal to the streets of Wellington and the Victorian era. Along the way, you get to hobnob with characters from literary classics, including Dorian Gray and Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, David Copperfield, characters from Dicken’s Great Expectations, and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights.

Seamlessly weaving whimsy with a dark side and plenty of suspense, this is a quirky love letter to great literature and loving bonds that can’t be broken. {more}

When I first came to Wellington to study law, I came because it was the cultural and creative capital of the country. It was where laws were made, and where art was made. It was where governments rose and fell in the House of Parliament named the Beehive, where lively discussions sparked over coffee in quirky cafés, where students drank to flashing strobe lights in the small hours of the morning. I had been there only once or twice, on school visits. I knew its inhabitants always complained about the weather and the hills: it was famous for winds that tore through the city at up to 250 kilometers an hour, rain that lashed its coast to ribbons, and steep slopes, dark with ancient bush, on which wooden colonial houses perched like roosting wood pigeons. I didn’t have feelings about that. I was eighteen and ambitious, and I wanted to build a life in the city. I didn’t need, or expect, to fall in love with it. — H.G. Parry

The Whale Rider - Witi Ihimaera

The Whale Rider
> Witi Ihimaera

In the Māori village of Whangara on New Zealand’s North Island, a male heir has inherited the title of chief in every generation. It’s a proud tradition in a people descended from Kahutian Te Rangi, the legendary Whale Rider. This is how it’s always been. This is how it must be.

But there’s a ripple in the calm surface of village life: The elderly chief must name his successor, and there is no male heir. The only descendant in the line of succession is a girl. And tradition has no use for a girl.

Meet Kahu, an 8-year-old firecracker who’s about to change everything.

This story is based on the Maori whale rider mythology, and it unfolds like a fairy tale with high stakes and beautiful, quiet moments. The tale is told through two alternating points of view: from Kahu’s uncle, who takes us into everyday life in the village and recaps the extraordinary events that occur, and from the perspective of an ancient whale. We’re taken inside the mythology and the minds of peaceful, powerful, ancient creatures that shape the Māori worldview. {more}

I suppose that if this story has a beginning, it is with Kahu. After all, it was Kahu who was there at the end, and it was Kahu’s intervention which perhaps saved us all. We always knew there would be such a child, but when Kahu was born, well, we were looking the other way, really. — Witi Ihimaera

Wide-Open World - John Marshall

Wide-Open World
> John Marshall

Author John Marshall and his wife had been married for 20 years — with a teenage son and daughter and all the other responsibilities that come free-with-purchase when you’re an adult. They’d always had a dream to travel the world as a family, and the time to make that happen was ticking out.

While discussing ways they might be able to afford flights, hotels, and meals for four during a global adventure, they had a brainstorm: Why not volunteer in exchange for room, board, and transport? Eventually, with their house rented, jobs abandoned, school put on hold, and personal effects in storage, the Marshall family was on the move with backpacks and good intentions.

This honestly written, funny, and moving memoir tells the story of their six months exploring the world and their family dynamics. They journey takes them to a Costa Rican wildlife center, an Indian orphanage, and to New Zealand, where they worked the land on organic farms.

There are plenty of problems along the way: monkey bites, internet withdrawal, humidity, bug bites, seemingly endless, bumpy bus rides, and hundreds of other indignities, small and large. And the story doesn’t end as well as you might hope. But there’s beauty and insight and connections with people from different cultures. This is the story of an extraordinary family vacation that just might inspire you to run away and see the world. {more}

We wouldn’t just be sightseeing. We’d be helping. Instead of impersonal hotels and budget restaurants, we’d be in communities where we were needed, making connections to local people, eating with them, living with them. Some people report having their lives forever altered by a single week of overseas service. So what could a whole year do? — John Marshall

Top image courtesy of Aaron Mickan/Unsplash.

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