Jane Arthur’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jane Arthur’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksMay 8, 2024

‘I do love a good funnysad novel’: Jane Arthur on her favourite books

Jane Arthur’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jane Arthur’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)

Welcome to The Spinoff Bookseller Confessional, in which we get to know Aotearoa’s booksellers. This week: Jane Arthur, author of Brown Bird, and former bookseller at Good Books.

The book I wish I’d written

I have been working on not comparing myself to others. On accepting that what I can write, or offer the world in general, is singularly mine and therefore envy is irrelevant. And so on and so forth, etc etc. But I do really love a good “funnysad” novel (this is my term for modern tragicomedy), and so I’m choosing the blockbuster Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. I literally LOLed throughout and completely sobbed at the end. I’d love to have written something that has that effect on people – and received the accolades and, presumably, the royalties…

Everyone should read

How to Be a Bad Muslim and Other Essays by Mohamed Hassan because either you will identify with it or you will be slapped upside the brain with an exquisitely written, personal, moving lesson in antiracism (or both).

The book I want to be buried with

Let’s say Charlotte’s Web. It’s my number one fave and the book I’ve re-read most in my life. It’s one of those shape-shifters, whose meaning changes depending on me. Despite not usually being big on talking-animal books, this is just so perfect in every way: the rhythm of the language, the observations of human nature, descriptions of the seasons, and of course the characters. I re-read it a few years ago when I had a newborn, and it was suddenly hugely feminist. Then last year I read it to my now six-year-old and it became a profound lesson on mortality. He cried himself to sleep after Charlotte died, but then became fascinated by her death and we talked about it a lot. He has declared it his favourite book – which is cool, because it’s mine too.

From left to right: The book Jane Arthur wishes she’d written; the book she thinks we should all read; and the book she’d be buried with.

Fiction or nonfiction?


It’s a crime against language to

Police grammar and spelling on social media. People make mistakes. Let it go.

The book that made me cry

Cousins by Patricia Grace was the first book that made actual tears fall, not just well up. The movie did the same. Full ugly-crying.

The book I wish would be adapted for film or TV

Audition by Pip Adam, directed by Bill Hader.

Encounter with an author

This is possibly quite terrible? About 20 years ago I was working a shift alone in a bookshop and CK Stead came in and I was so … I guess … starstruck that I proceeded to ignore him completely for 45 minutes as he browsed. Then he asked if we had a particular book in stock, we didn’t, I told him, and he left.

Greatest New Zealand book

Cruel task! I read a lot of local books, though never enough – we rule – but even so, for this section I will choose the 1985 children’s novel Jellybean by Tessa Duder, written before her Alex series. A few years ago, I wrote about this book for The Sapling, and reading that essay again now it’s funny, though unsurprising, how many similar themes ended up in Brown Bird, my debut children’s novel.

From left to right: The book that made Jane Arthur cry; the book she thinks would make a great TV show or film; and her best NZ book.

Best place to read

Always in bed. It’s where I read and it’s where I write, though I have just got myself a tiny kitset desk and an ergonomic office chair, so we’ll see about that …

What are you reading right now?

I’m halfway through the rich, brilliant novel Enlightenment by Sarah Perry. I recently finished Richard Shaw’s The Unsettled: Small Stories of Colonisation, which is bloody brilliant and I am so grateful for it; and Isla Huia’s debut poetry collection, Talia, which reminded me slightly of Danez Smith’s work for its layers of imagery, play and punch – I loved it. Next up is Ash, the debut novel skewering domestic labour by poet Louise Wallace, and about which I have heard and read only great things.

Brown Bird by Jane Arthur ($20, Penguin NZ) is available to purchase from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

Keep going!