Secret lives and untold histories: New popular non-fiction

Wondering what’s new this month in our non-fiction collection? Prolific novelist Phillipa Gregory tries her hand at non-fiction in Normal Women, a huge undertaking that puts so-called “ordinary” women at the front and centre of this British history, rather than the usual array of queens and affluent ladies. Mountains of Fire looks to be an adventurous and entertaining piece from the pen of a volcanologist (can we talk about that cover?), while Everything I Know About Books is a treat for any book lover, giving readers a glimpse into Aotearoa’s flourishing publishing industry with a huge number of contributors from around these literary motu. That’s not all, of course — browse our other picks below!

Mountains of fire : the secret lives of volcanoes / Oppenheimer, Clive
“We are made of the same stuff as the breath and cinders of volcanoes. No matter where we live on the planet, these fiery mountains have long shaped the path of humanity. World-famous volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer has worked at the crater’s edge in the wildest places on Earth. In Mountains of Fire we join him on hair-singeing adventures, close enough to feel the heat of the lava, from Antarctica to Iceland, to learn how deeply our stories are intertwined with volcanoes.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

What we remember will be saved : a story of refugees and the things they carry / Saldana, Stephanie
“Journalist and scholar Stephanie Saldaña, who lived in Syria before the war, sets out on a journey across nine countries to meet refugees and learn what they salvaged from the ruins when they escaped. Now, in the narratives of six extraordinary women and men, from Mt. Sinjar to Aleppo to Lesvos to Amsterdam, we discover that the little things matter a great deal. Saldaña introduces us to a woman who saved her city in a dress, a musician who saved his stories in songs, and a couple who rebuilt their destroyed pharmacy even as the city around them fell apart. Together they provide a window into a religiously diverse corner of the Middle East on the edge of unraveling, and the people keeping it alive with their stories.” (Catalogue)

Normal women : 900 years of making history / Gregory, Philippa
Normal Women is a radical reframing of Britain’s story, told not with the rise and fall of kings and the occasional queen, but through social and cultural transition, showing the agency, persistence, and effectiveness of women in society – from 1066 to modern times. This is a book about millions of women, not just three or four. The ‘normal women’ you meet in these pages rode in jousts, flew Spitfires, issued their own currency and built ships, corn mills and houses as part of their daily lives. They went to war, tilled the fields, campaigned, wrote and loved. They committed crimes, or treason, worshipped many types of gods, cooked and nursed, invented things and rioted. A lot. A landmark work of scholarship and storytelling, Philippa Gregory puts women back where they belong in our history – centre stage.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

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Best of 2023: Our top non-fiction picks!

Our list of the top 100 non-fiction books for 2023 is here! It includes the best in memoirs and biographies, poetry, local history, science, social history, art and more. We’ve highlighted an exciting mix of new books made up of hidden gems, popular bestsellers, literary prize winners and acclaimed local talents. There’s plenty to choose from for every kind of reader.

2023 Non-fiction Highlights — Browse the full list
Browse the full list with all our picks, or browse just the topic you enjoy!

We were thrilled to watch the ongoing success of many homegrown authors who have generously graced our physical and online spaces this year, including Redmer Yska for Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station, Arihia Latham (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha) for her sublime debut poetry collection Birdspeak, and the rousing collection of diverse voices found in the anthology A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha. Here are some more Aotearoa specific highlights that you’ll find within our 2023 best of non-fiction list!

For celebrity biographies there’s no prizes given for which ex-Royal’s book topped most bestseller lists this year, but not far behind a Kiwi talent shone through with Sam Neill’s Did I Ever Tell You This?. We’d recommend listening to the eAudiobook version voiced by the actor for the full experience.

In the world of art there’s plenty of talent to admire in the visually stunning and comprehensive volumes Pacific Arts Aotearoa, and Urgent Moments: art and social change. Then, take an integral look into how Māori artists have adapted age-old techniques in their contemporary practices, forming clay workers collective Ngā kaihanga uku

In Science and Environment, American author John Valiant’s Fire Weather is a must-read and recently won the prestigious Baillie Guifford Prize for Non-Fiction. But for local stories on lifetimes spent in the outdoors and helping conservation efforts, look to Dave Towns’ Ahuahu: a conservation journey in Aotearoa New Zealand and Kennedy Warne’s Soundings: diving stories in the beckoning sea. There’s also The Forgotten Forest by Robert Vennell for those wanting to take an illustrated walk through the bush via the page.

Looking under the health umbrella, local author Kristen Phillips wrote a touching memoir, Dad, You’ve Got Dementia, and Dr Emma Espiner’s (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) There’s A Cure For This highlighted significant problems within our medical system and important improvements that can be made for Māori.

Rugby League in New Zealand by Ryan Bodman sums up a national pride, complete with full page photographs of unforgettable games by legendary players. And don’t miss Our Land in Colour: a history of Aotearoa New Zealand 1860-1960 to see a century’s worth of historic photographs seen for the first time in full colour. Find all these local titles, plus their internationally acclaimed counterparts in our best of 2023 selection. Happy reading!

Summer of Books: New popular non-fic

December is upon us, which means it’s the perfect time to start reserving books for the summer break. Is it really the holiday season if you don’t have a towering stack of tomes to see you through to the end of the year? We think not! As for the contents of said book-tower, it’s always good to prepare for any mood that may strike, and no pile is complete without a selection of sumptuous new non-fiction.

For anyone who prefers a bit of laid-back browsing during their holidays, then Our Land in Colour is a fantastic one to check out: its colourised photographs of Aotearoa are captivating. Comedian David Mitchell’s Unruly promises a rollicking run through history, if you’re after something lighter for those long, lazy days. If you find that the best part of the holidays is the food then you might try The Upstairs Delicatessen, or maybe you’ll finally have the time to sit down with a contemplative work, in which case something like Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger might find itself at the top of the pile. Whatever the mood, we wish you happy reading!

Doppelganger : a trip into the mirror world / Klein, Naomi
“Naomi Klein is one of our most trenchant and influential social critics, an essential analyst of what branding, austerity, and climate profiteering have done to our societies and souls. Here she turns her gaze inward to our psychic landscapes, and outward to the possibilities for building hope amid economic, medical, and political crises. Doppelganger asks: What do we neglect as we polish and perfect our digital reflections? Is it possible to dispose of our doubles and overcome the pathologies of a culture of multiplication? Can we create a politics of collective care and undertake a true reckoning with historical crimes? The result is a revelatory treatment of the way many of us think and feel now – and an intellectual adventure story for our times.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Our land in colour : a history of Aotearoa New Zealand 1860-1960 / Graham, Brendon
“A breathtaking collection of 200 photographs expertly colourised by Aotearoa New Zealand’s premier colourist, Brendan Graham, with commentary from award-winning historian Jock Phillips. Two hundred images have been meticulously colourised, opening a window back in time with remarkable detail. From how the people adapted to the environment and the way they had to feed, clothe, house and transport themselves across an at times inhospitable land, to how they banded together with a spirit that would become famously Kiwi – each image is a reminder of who we were and where we’ve come from.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Unruly : a history of England’s kings and queens / Mitchell, David
“This will be the most refreshing, entertaining history of England you’ll have ever read. Certainly, the funniest. Because David Mitchell will explain how it is not all names, dates or ungraspable historical headwinds, but instead show how it’s really just a bunch of random stuff that happened with a few lucky bastards ending up on top. Some of these bastards were quite strange, but they were in charge, so we quite literally lived, and often still live, by their rules. It’s a great story. And it’s our story. If you want to know who we are in modern Britain, you need to read this book.” (Catalogue)

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Labours of Love: New popular non-fic

There’s nothing quite like a super niche non-fiction book written by a passionate author. We love finding them – it might start with a little double-take, a moment spent frowning at the title, thinking there’s no way someone wrote a whole book on this. You might not even be interested in the topic, yet somehow your attention has been snagged by the opening paragraph, and all of a sudden you’re wandering over to a chair so you can set aside whatever armful you’re carrying and properly turn the page…

For every niche book out in the world there is a reader who cannot wait to get into it. Sometimes that’s how those books get written in the first place; that’s what happened to Tove Danovich, in any case. She’s the author of Under the Henfluence, a book all about chickens: chickens in history, chickens as food, chickens as pets, chickens as quirky little beings of their own. It’s the book she wanted to read but couldn’t find, so she wrote it instead – and honestly we love the commitment! Such passion is certainly inviting to prospective readers, so whether it’s chicken lore, literary history, ancient archaeology or personal memoir that catches your attention, we hope you find something special to read from this list today (and perhaps a new obsession or two).

Under the henfluence : the world of chickens and the people who love them / Danovich, Tove
“Since first domesticating the chicken thousands of years ago, humans have become exceptionally adept at raising them for food. Yet most people rarely interact with chickens or know much about them. Tove Danovich explores the lives of these quirky, mysterious birds, revealing their hidden cleverness, quiet sweetness and irresistible personalities, as well as the complex human-chicken relationship that has evolved over centuries. She also casts light back on ourselves and what we’ve ignored throughout the explosive growth of industrial agriculture. Woven with delightful and sometimes heartbreaking anecdotes from Danovich’s own henhouse, Under the Henfluence proves that chickens are so much more than what they bring to the table.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Searching for Juliet : the lives and deaths of Shakespeare’s first tragic heroine / Duncan, Sophie
“Juliet Capulet is the heartbeat of the world’s most famous love story. She is an enduring romantic icon. And she is a captivating, brilliant, passionate teenage girl who is read and interpreted afresh by each new generation. Searching for Juliet takes us from the Renaissance origin stories behind William Shakespeare’s child bride to the boy actor who inspired her creation onstage. Sophie Duncan draws on rich cultural and historical sources and new research to explore the legacy and reach of Romeo and Juliet far beyond the literary sphere. With warmth, wit, and insight, she shows us why Juliet is for now, for ever, for everyone.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

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Strange Weather: Recent climate books

We have a huge number of books on environment and climate in our collection, and new titles are being published at an astounding rate as the science develops and as the reality of climate change sets in. It can be tempting to pass over these books, especially for those of us already experiencing climate grief or anxiety – the content is confronting and frankly scary. But the authors below are not here to bog us down in hopelessness. The facts they present are undeniable and their writing is urgent, but what they are offering us is a deeper understanding, showing how we might face our fears and channel our actions, and reminding us of the other paths that we – as individuals, as communities, as countries – can take.

There are all sorts here: poets and weather experts, gardeners and journalists, and between them all they cover a vast swathe of topics. If you want to understand the nitty-gritty science, then Under the Weather and Heat are the ones for you. To focus in on particular case studies, check out Fire Weather and Wasteland. For practical advice, Milkwood from Tasmanian-based permaculture experts looks fantastic, while Re-Food offers a road forward grounded in the Aotearoa context. Lastly, the philosophically-minded will enjoy the poetic Soil or the determined essays in Not Too Late. 

Under the weather : a future forecast for New Zealand / Renwick, J. A.
“A warmer world will change more than just our weather patterns. It will change the look of the land around us, what grows and lives on it – including us. Drawing on climate models that can travel to ice ages and hothouses of the deep past, Professor James Renwick untangles how we know exactly what the future holds and why it matters to our everyday lives. He looks at New Zealand’s more frequent natural disasters, warming and rising sea levels, and the ways that the changing weather will affect our agriculture, lifestyle, food security and economy. Arresting, galvanizing and clear-sighted, Under the Weather is a picture of a miraculous planet in danger, a stock-take on what it means for this small country, and a reminder that the shape of our future is up to us.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Re-food : exploring the troubled food system of Aotearoa New Zealand / King, Emily
“In “Re-food”, Emily King advocates for a food systems approach to help the troubled food networks of Aotearoa New Zealand. She looks at the best ways forward to address challenges we face with soils, waterways, climate change, food waste, packaging, unhealthy diets, and a lack of access to food. Written in three parts, “Re-food” traverses the full food system and unpacks its issues along the way while providing timely and relevant ideas and inspiration for readers to solve these problems themselves. It offers tools, insights and mindset changes that chart a path towards a healthier, more sustainable food future, one which incorporates Te Ao Maori and our strengths as a top-quality food-producing nation.” (Catalogue)

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Fabric Hoarders and Orchid Outlaws: New popular non-fic

In 1838, Anne Sykes began to collect an array of fabrics in her personal diary, a project she dedicated herself to during her early adulthood. She collected scraps of her own clothes as well as those of her family and friends, just as some in those years might have collected signatures or locks of hair, resulting in a wonderful record of the fabrics and fashions of her youth. By the 1970s, the diary found its way to a market and then eventually into the hands of fashion historian Kate Strasdin. As she pored over its swatch-laden pages, a picture emerged – not just of Anne Sykes herself but a wider tale of the time too. Strasdin explores this unique glimpse into the Victorian era in her own book, which you can find below.

As for the other picks for this month, the theme of adornments continues in Tiny Statements, a book based on Te Papa’s eclectic collection of badges. For the ecologically inclined we have a guide to navigating the climate crisis alongside author Ben Jacob’s record of his efforts to stave off the decline of wild-growing orchids. Lastly, if you don’t mind a bit of a queue, Dr Emma Espiner’s fantastic memoir is well worth the wait. She writes with wit, passion and empathy, touching on numerous subjects including her whānau, working in healthcare in Aotearoa, and so much more – every bit of it powerful.

There’s a cure for this : a memoir / Espiner, Emma
“From award-winning writer Dr Emma Espiner comes this striking and profound debut memoir. Encompassing whānau, love, death, ’90s action movies and scarfie drinking, There’s a cure for this is Espiner’s own story, from a childhood spent shuttling between a ‘purple lesbian state house and a series of man-alone rentals’ to navigating parenthood on her own terms; from the quietly perceived inequities of her early life to hard-won revelations as a Māori medical student and junior doctor during the Covid-19 pandemic. Clear, irreverent and beautiful, this book offers a candid and moving examination of what it means to be human when it seems like nothing less than superhuman will do.” (Catalogue)

The frontier below : the past, present and future of our quest to go deeper underwater / Maynard, Jeff
“We do not see the ocean when we look at the water that blankets more than two thirds of our planet. We only see the entrance to it. The first divers to enter that world held their breath and splashed beneath the surface, often clutching rocks to pull them down. Over centuries, they invented wooden diving bells, clumsy diving suits, and unwieldy contraptions in attempts to go deeper and stay longer. But each advance was fraught with danger, as the intruders had to survive the crushing weight of water, or the deadly physiological effects of breathing compressed air. Today, as nations scramble to exploit the resources of the ocean floor, The Frontier Below recalls a story of human endeavour that took 2,000 years to travel seven miles.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The dress diary of Mrs Anne Sykes / Strasdin, Kate
“In 1838, Anne Sykes began collecting snippets of fabric from a range of garments in her diary, carefully annotating each one.  Nearly two hundred years later, the diary fell into the hands of Kate Strasdin, a fashion historian and museum curator. Piece by piece, fragments of cloth become windows into Victorian life: pirates in Borneo, the complicated etiquette of mourning, poisonous dyes, the British Empire in full swing, rioting over working conditions and the terrible human cost of Britain’s cotton industry. This is life writing that celebrates ordinary people: the hidden figures, the participants in everyday life. Strasdin lays bare the whole of human experience in the most intimate of mediums: the clothes we choose to wear.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

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