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Image design by Archi Banal.
Image design by Archi Banal.

BooksMay 1, 2024

‘There is some properly foul content in this book’: What a bookseller reads

Image design by Archi Banal.
Image design by Archi Banal.

Welcome to The Spinoff Bookseller Confessional, in which we get to know Aotearoa’s booksellers. This week: Eden Denyer, bookseller at Unity Books Wellington.

Weirdest question/request you’ve had on the shop floor

A mother came in looking for anything we might have on Alaskan bison as that was her little boy’s special interest. We unfortunately didn’t have anything besides the Lonely Planet guide to Alaska which she took as they were planning a trip out there so that he could see them for himself. We had a great chat and I think about them often.

We also get lots of requests for non-book related items. Today I was asked if we sold baptism candles which is probably the weirdest one I’ve had in a while!

Funniest thing you’ve overheard on the shop floor

I always giggle when people have impassioned debates about books but have to qualify every observation with “I mean I haven’t actually read it, but…” (I’m guilty of this too to be fair). Most of the funny things I hear get posted to our social media page — I think my favourite was the two ladies discussing Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: “It’s a great book — I would know, my Dad’s bought it for me three times.”

Best thing about being a bookseller

Getting to talk with customers about my favourite books! I can’t believe I get paid to do it full time. When people come back to tell me they or their child loved one of my recommendations it makes my week! Not to sound cheesy but books can be simultaneously universal and so personal. It’s amazing to be able to share a book that made an impact on me with someone else knowing that they’ll get something out of it too. I curate our staff picks pillar and it’s awesome to be able to pass on feedback to my colleagues about what’s resonating with our customers. There’s an old chap who looks out for my staff picks specifically — I feel like a celebrity. It’s great to be so close to my community with that and book launches, truly feel very lucky and fulfilled.

Worst thing about being a bookseller

When someone asks for something and I immediately become illiterate and forget every book I’ve ever read. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought of the perfect book for a customer’s request right after they’ve left the store. My brain won’t move on, and sometimes I’m up late into the night brainstorming options for someone. Like, it’s time to give up bestie, the moment has completely passed. One of my colleagues has a phrase “there’s no such thing as a bookselling emergency”, and that helps me keep myself in perspective.

Most requested book/s 

There’s been pretty high demand for Dune lately which is exciting. I still haven’t seen either of the films yet, but I’ve heard great things from fans and newcomers. Most requested all time is tricky — I think Fungi of Aotearoa by Liv Sisson must be up there, we were constantly running out of stock as soon as it would come back in. That or Patrick Rothfuss’s third Kingkiller book which is unfortunately yet to materialise…

What would you recommend to someone who hardly ever reads

Several People are Typing by Calvin Kasulke or Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Oil Rigs, She Thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whorehouse by Paul Carter. The former is a satire of corporate culture in the digital age told entirely through chatlogs, and the latter is an excellent collection of yarns that could make paint peel off the wall. I bought it for my dad for Christmas and he’s given it to all of his friends. Both books are hilarious and easily accessible — you can whizz through them in an afternoon and have a fantastic time!

From left to right: one of the most requested books; and the two books that Denyer would recommend to people who hardly read.

Favourite encounter with an author

Lil O’Brien popped in to the shop to check if we had any copies of Not That I’d Kiss a Girl and because I’m terrible with faces I didn’t recognise her until she said “Oh yeah, I’m the author”. My hometown is quite conservative and I had fished a copy out of our local Whitcoulls sales bin in my early teens. It was *the* formative queer experience for me (who knew that not only do lesbians exist in real life but in my actual country!). It was truly a lifeboat when I felt disgusting and evil for my own queerness. I went totally pink and gushed to her — she was so chill and kind and popped in the next day to sign my personal copy with a really lovely inscription that I keep close to my heart. Total opposite of never meet your heroes.

The book I wish I’d written

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. The whole Locked Tomb series is disgustingly excellent and clever, but the first has got to be my favourite, if only for Gideon herself. There’s such a lack of butch lesbians in media and this one cracks dirty jokes and wields a giant sword! All-time favourite literary character. I can’t write action scenes for love nor money, but these read like cinema. The characters, worldbuilding, religious allusions, memes, 12-dimensional-chess-like plot – I wish I could keep Muir’s brain in a jar and study it, or maybe steal her skin.

Everyone should read

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde because I need someone to talk about it with! It’s this absolutely ridiculous dystopia where your rank in society is determined by how much of the colour spectrum you can perceive. There’s a black market for spoons, secret conspiracies, man eating plants, swan attacks and so much more. All citizens must use elaborate loopholery to get around the nonsensical laws set by “Our Munsell” and National Colour which leads to great trouble and hilarity. It’s very much in the vein of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams in its absurdity but also its resonance. After a 13 year wait the sequel has finally been published and it is everything I hoped for and more. I was literally pacing my house in panic while reading the final few chapters and now I need to rant excitedly and swap theories. Fascinatingly bizarre, extremely funny and absolutely gripping.

For a more serious answer, Letters to Young People by Glenn Colquhoun. I think all New Zealanders (and honestly everyone in the world) should read it and heal a small part of themselves. Colquhoun is a brilliant doctor and wordsmith and this is some of his best work.

From left to right: the book at the heart of Denyer’s author encounter; the book they wish they’d written; and the book they think we should all read.

The book I want to be buried with

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. It was in the teachers’ library at my primary school and I used to sneak in to read as many chapters as I could before I got caught. Eventually I got my own copy and it is the book that I consistently come back to at my highest and lowest moments. I used to fall asleep to the audiobook as a kid. I read it aloud to my partner when we started dating and it’s kept me company on many hospital trips. I can’t imagine leaving it in the mortal plane.

The first book I remember reading by myself

Probably the Deltora Quest Series by Emily Rodda. She’s the queen of terrifying monster design and 7-year-old old me was completely obsessed. My best mate and I used to hang out at lunchtime to solve all the codes in the companion guide to get the secret messages. We’d plan our Deltora itinerary and how we would survive all of the deadly phenomena we would encounter on our travels.

The book I wish I’d never read

The Opposite of Butterfly Hunting by Evanna Lynch. It’s an incredible account of life with and recovery from an eating disorder, but I read it far too soon in my own recovery journey and it definitely set me back. I want to be clear that this was my bad, not the book. Lynch takes extreme care in conveying her experiences without glamourisation or creating a “how-to guide”. She is strong, clever, witty, wry and extremely self-aware in her depictions of the disease and the real toll it takes on those within its grasp. I’d highly recommend it to people who may be trying to understand the mentality behind EDs but if you have any history yourself and aren’t in an exceptionally stable headspace, I would be careful.

The book that haunts me

Brainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt. You know you’re in for a bad time when the author breaks the fourth wall to pop in and say “Hey, this next section is pretty rough, you might want to take a break before you read it 0:)”. I read the whole book in a single night because I knew that if I put it down I may never have picked it up again. There is some properly FOUL content in this book that I will never be able to unsee. That being said, Rumfitt is a master of her craft and if you can stomach her work you should read it. Her commentary on the experience of being a trans woman in the UK with the rise of political extremism is fascinating and chilling, and she takes her stories to some incredibly creative places. Just make sure not to read on a full stomach…

From left to right: the book Denyer would be buried with; the book they wish they’d never read; and the book that haunts them.

The book that made me cry

Akwaeke Emezi’s debut poetry collection Content Warning: Everything had me bawling my eyes out in my kitchen. It’s so succinct and thoughtful yet vulnerable and utterly devastating. The way they grapple with their trauma, their relationship with their body, their Igbo heritage, their identity, their family and their faith to ultimately emerge triumphant as their own distinct powerful being is flooring. I honestly don’t have the words to describe how much it impacted me.

Keep going!