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BooksMay 14, 2018

The 50 best New Zealand books of the past 50 years: The official listicle


This week’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards marks the 50th anniversary of book awards in New Zealand. To mark the occasion, we asked 50 experts – authors, publishers, academics, booksellers – to name the very best local books published since 1968.

And the winner is Plumb. Maurice Gee’s  1979 novel was almost immediately regarded as The Great New Zealand Novel and it pretty much still is, going by The Spinoff Review of Books’ landmark survey, in which experts have voted Plumb as the best book of the past 50 years.

We assembled a panel of 50 literateurs – authors, publishers, academics, booksellers, the usual suspects – and sent them the entire list of New Zealand book award winners since 1968. This week’s Ockham ceremony marks the 50th anniversary of national book awards. We wanted to mark the occasion with something special, and we came up with…a listicle. But it’s a quality listicle. As follows are the top 50 books as voted by our panel of 50 experts.

A brief note on what wasn’t considered. We acknowledge that really good books very regularly miss out on awards, but they weren’t considered. Children’s books weren’t considered, either, so no room for titles such as Hairy Maclary or Alex or that existential masterpiece Mrs Wishy-Washy. The Yellow Pages wasn’t considered. We forgot to include Michael King’s massively popular Penguin History of New Zealand in the awards list – it actually missed out on winning anything, apart from the Readers’ Choice – and acknowledge that it’s a bit of a fucking oversight it wasn’t considered. Still, King himself didn’t regard it as his best work.

We wrote to our panel, “Name the books you feel are the very, very best. Classics, favourites, important documents, just things you plain enjoyed reading the most – whatever.” And so they went for the old canon (Gee, Frame, Stead etc), but they also went about assembling a new canon. Ashleigh Young’s book of essays, which won last year, came in at number 11. From the same year, Hera Lindsay Bird’s book of poems was only just outside the top 20.

There were fascinating differences between the experts’ list, and the list as voted by our readers a few weeks ago. The readers by and large were suckers for fiction. The experts allowed for a lot more non-fiction, or “important documents”; there were popular studies of who we are and how we came to be, and books which acknowledged New Zealand as a nation built by two peoples, with Redemption Songs by Judith Binney, Te Puea by Michael King, and The Treaty of Waitangi by Claudia Orange all making the top 20. Special mention here for Civilisation at number 30.

Readers loved Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip. Experts much preferred his earlier novel, The Book of Fame. Readers voted CK Stead’s debut novel in their top 20. So did experts. God knows why! Surely it’s nowhere near as sophisticated and imaginative as his later novel All Visitors Ashore (voted nowhere by readers, 34th place by experts.)

Janet Frame has two books in the top 10. Emily Perkins has two books in the top 20 – it was fascinating to see the votes pouring in for her wonderful debut, Not Her Real Name. Sue McCauley, who now farms alpacas in Dannevirke, was remembered for her explosive 1982 Pakeha-Māori love story, Other Halves. You wouldn’t think anyone remembers Anthony Alpers anymore but there he was in the top 20 with his masterly biography of Katherine Mansfield.

Further down the list, there was the photography classic South Island from the Road by Robin Morrison; Lifted by Bill Manhire was the highest ranking book of verse; and Michael King ended up with three books in the top 50, confirming him as New Zealand’s most trusted author.

Anyhow. To the results of the landmark survey, the quality listicle, with special congratulations to Nelson man Maurice Gee, 86.

1 Plumb by Maurice Gee (Oxford University Press, 1979)

We asked Nelson Arts Festival readers and writers programme co-ordinator Kerry Sunderland to ask Maurice Gee to comment on Plumb topping the chart. He emailed, “I don’t think ‘top’ can be measured but it’s good to know that Plumb is remembered and that people enjoy it. Actually, I can be more enthusiastic than that: I’m chuffed.

“Forty years after writing it I can still be clear where it came from. I’d had something like it in mind for a long time, saving it up in a way – my grandfather novel – while I wrote the four that I now look on as apprentice novels. Nothing is better for a writer of my sort than to have interesting parents or grandparents. Maurice Shadbolt agreed with me – he wrote his own grandfather novel. My maternal grandfather, James Chapple, was brought alive – made more than just an old man I sometimes played draughts with – by stories my mother told my brothers and me about his early life. He had started as a Salvationist, became a Presbyterian home missionary at Kumara on the west coast, fathered fifteen children, was ordained as a minister, quarreled with Presbyterian doctrine and became a Unitarian, emigrated to California during the first world war, came back again when America turned out to be not pacifist after all (leaving a couple of rebellious daughters behind), was sent to prison for seditious utterance – and so on. He was a true rebel, willing to pay the price – and for his family to pay. He went the whole way into communism. One of the lectures that landed him in prison was called ‘The Glorious Bolsheviks of Russia’.

“What a marvellous gift he was to me: George Plumb ready made.

“Family stories weren’t the only thing I had. James Chapple’s quarrel with his church and his trial for seditious utterance were widely reported in the newspapers of the time. I made xeroxed copies. He published two collections of essays and lectures, kept notebooks full of ideas, anecdotes, jokes, for fitting into lectures here and there. My mother gave me these along with his heavily annotated bible. All of this was ground prepared and I had to grow an imaginary figure, George Plumb, out of it. Not an easy job but one I was more than ready for. And my circumstances were right at last: my daughters at school, my wife Margareta keen to go back to work and support the family while I wrote. So, in our new town of Nelson, in  a little room I had built under the house, I sat down to write Plumb.

“Forty years have gone by and I don’t remember much about the almost two years it took to write – I  kept my head down and kept at it, using what I was given and inventing much more. I learned Plumb’s voice and how to use it, and dipped into my bag of memories when I was stuck. The Plumb children are invented, they’re not my uncles and aunts although I can’t deny similarities, and one or two of them (the aunts and uncles) weren’t pleased. But the oldest Chapple son was delighted with nasty Oliver, the oldest Plumb son. And Meg Plumb, who was to be the voice of the second novel in the trilogy, was very like my mother.

“But beyond that, beyond what I was given,  I can’t say where the whole imagined world of George Plumb came from.”

Maurice Gee and James K Baxter

2 To the Is-Land by Janet Frame (Hutchinson, 1983)

3 the bone people by Keri Hulme (Spiral, 1984)

4 Potiki by Patricia Grace (Penguin, 1987)

5 An Angel at My Table: An Autobiography, Volume II by Janet Frame (Hutchinson, 1984)

6 Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki by Judith Binney (Auckland University Press & Bridget Williams Books, 1996)

7 The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, 1999)

8 The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, 2001)

9 Other Halves by Sue McCauley (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)

10 Te Puea: A Biography by Michael King (Hodder & Stoughton, 1978)

11 Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press, 2017)

12 Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff (Tandem, 1991)

13 The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Victoria University Press, 2014)

14 Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris (Bridget Williams Books, 2016)

15 The Life of Katherine Mansfield by Anthony Alpers (Viking, 1981)

16 The Treaty of Waitangi by Claudia Orange (Allen & Unwin, & Port Nicholson Press, 1988)

17 = Pounamu, Pounamu by Witi Ihimaera (Heinemann, 1973); A Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury, 2009)

19 Smith’s Dream by C. K. Stead (Longman Paul, 1972)

20 = The Sugarbag Years by Tony Simpson (Alister Taylor, 1974); Not Her Real Name, and Other Stories by Emily Perkins (Victoria University Press, 1996)

22 =  The South Island of New Zealand from the Road by Robin Morrison (Alister Taylor, 1982); Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird (Victoria University Press, 2017)

24 The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas by Anne Salmond (Allen Lane, 2004)

25 Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918–1964 by Chris Bourke (Auckland University Press, 2011)

26 Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, 2007)

27 Tangi by Witi Ihimaera (Heinemann, 1974)

28 Lifted by Bill Manhire (Victoria University Press, 2006)

29 Moriori: A People Rediscovered by Michael King (Viking, 1990)

30 Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World by Steve Braunias (Awa Press, 2013)

31 The Dictionary of New Zealand English: A Dictionary of New Zealandisms on Historical Principles by Harry Orsman (Oxford University Press, 1998)

32 Living in the Maniototo by Janet Frame (Braziller, 1980)

33 Amiria: The Life Story of a Maori Woman by Amiria Stirling, as told to Anne Salmond (Reed, 1977)

34 Bread and Roses by Sonja Davies (Fraser Books, 1985)

35 Shape-Shifter by Hone Tuwhare (Steele Roberts, 1998)

36 All Visitors Ashore by C. K. Stead (Collins, 1985)

37 Tu by Patricia Grace (Penguin, 2005)

38 A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case by Lynley Hood (Canterbury University Press, 2001)

39 The Unfortunate Experiment by Sandra Coney (Penguin, 1989)

40 Opportunity by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, 2008)

41 Let the River Stand by Vincent O’Sullivan (Penguin, 1994)

42 The Art of Grahame Sydney by Grahame Sydney (Longacre Press, 20001)

43 Māori: A Photographic and Social History by Michael King (Heinemann, 1984)

44 Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand by Audrey Eagle (Collins, 1976)

45 The 10pm Question by Kate De Goldi (Longacre Press, 2009)

46 Two Worlds: First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772 by Anne Salmond (Viking, 1992)

47 Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life by Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa Press, 2009)

48 The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton (Victoria University Press, 2009)

49 Oracles and Miracles by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (Penguin, 1988)

50 Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and Why 29 Men Died by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press, 2014)


As chosen by: Elizabeth Alley, Sarah Jane Barnett, Steve Braunias, Linda Burgess, Kiran Dass, Kirsty Dunn, David Eggleton, Patrick Evans, Brannavan Gnallingham, Charlotte Graham-McLay, Charlotte Grimshaw, Scott Hamilton, Ella Henry, David Herkt, David Hill, Stephanie Johnson, Louisa Kasza, Fiona Kidman, Hirini Kaa, Rachael King, David Larsen, Graeme Lay, Paul Litterick, Tilly Lloyd, Danyl McLauchlan,  Marion McLeod, Claire Mabey, Bill Manhire, Philip Matthews, Buddy Mikaere, Paula Morris, Emma Neale, John Newton, Anne O’Brien, Greg O’Brien, Aileen O’Sullivan, Harry Ricketts, Elspeth Sandys, Sarah Schieff, Thom Shackleford, Peter Simpson, Elizabeth Smither, Guy Somerset, Kerry Sunderland, Philip Temple, Jenna Todd, Brian Turner, Holly Walker, Geoff Walker, and Bridget Williams.

The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books

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