Xmas: the winner of our big box of the best books of 2019 is...

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias announces the winner of our Xmas giveaway - but first provides a brief note on the purpose of a books section in these philistine times.

Thinking about New Zealand writing is an endangered activity. Space for book reviews in print and online media is thin and getting thinner, also dumber (few review editors also operate as authors or even know much about publishing, or writing), and a particular blow was delivered when Creative New Zealand rejected the funding application of the serious and distinguished quarterly journal New Zealand Books, forcing it to close down after 29 years of thinking about New Zealand writing. I’ve said it about CNZ's rejection before and I’ll say it again: Vandals! Philistines! So much for the we-love-local-literature meowings of arts minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labour-led government. Bums! Hypocrites!

Thank heavens Landfall is still around. As for ReadingRoom, it’s the only other review site edited by an author and dedicated to New Zealand-only content. To tell the truth that came about by accident. I created ReadingRoom in May simply because I wanted a space where books and writing could be thought about intelligently, enthusiastically, mockingly, etc. That was as far as I thought. The way I go about things is to make something first and then have some ideas about it. Anyway, so I decided to focus only on New Zealand books and writing, by way of reviews, essays, journalism, a new short story every Saturday, the weekly Neilsen best-seller chart; seven months later (merry Xmas!),  the best thing I can say about it is that it’s still around with every intention of sticking around.

Yesterday I published a giveaway competition to win the 10 best New Zealand books published in 2019. I  asked readers to write in and say the thing or sorts of things they most liked about ReadingRoom, and what idea or ideas they had for it to continue being the best and most exciting books section in New Zealand. All of which was terrifically self-regarding but oh well it seemed a fair trade for the chance to win a big box of free books, and I was keen to see what readers thought and if they had good ideas for things I could do in 2020.

There were about 300 entries. They wrote from Days Bay, Mangere Bridge, Feilding, St Clair, Takaka, Kerikeri, St Heliers, Otaki, Whitby, Central Otago, Christchurch, Mairangi Bay, Gisborne and beyond; they had job titles like Head of Advocacy & Strategy, and SOX and Financial Control Manager; they worked for the Ministry for the Environment,  Air New Zealand, Amnesty International, Westpac, ComCom; there was a lady aged 77, a mum of a four-year-old, a poet who used to be quite highly regarded.

They had ideas, some good, some bad, for how to improve ReadingRoom. “Perhaps some recorded stuff, or do some book events,” wondered Meg de Ronde. Yes that’d be fun. “Contributions from young school age writers,” suggested Lyn Jarman. Nah they can’t write.

“You probably should get some more reviewers and some more money to pay them,” thought Angela Soutar. Yes that’d be nice and so is the idea of Heaven and all the angels. “Would love to see more reviews of business books,” wrote Sam MacKinnon. Nah they’re not worth reading.

I liked this, from Simon Sweetman: "More from Tracey Slaughter. Anything she does is amazing. A weekly story or essay or poem by her would always hit the spot." The very best idea came from Toi Iti, who wrote, “May I suggest increasing the literary offerings of the indigenously imbued.” Love to. Want to. Will try very hard to; ReadingRoom is a site reserved for New Zealand content – New Zealand books, New Zealand authors, New Zealand stories – and a crucial and dynamic part of that is Māori writing, also Pasifika writing. ReadingRoom will strive to publish more by the indigenously imbued in 2020.

There were a bunch of other recommendations (author interviews, podcasts etc), and also a bunch of interesting general remarks about books and authors. Nicky Meadowcroft wrote,  “I found your FB page after reading Becky Manawatu’s essayI live in Westport and the whole town is immensely proud of her.” Paul Nilsson wrote,“You very kindly gave a lot of exposure to The Meaning of Trees by Robert Vennell. Robert's dad Grant was my best friend at school and after. He sadly died when Rob was a teenager. Grant wrote poetry and was very clever and kind. He volunteered his time to many causes and would be a cert for TVs ‘good sorts’ if he was still around today. He would just be so proud of what Rob has achieved.”

Nice one Paul, cheers.

The competition invited compliments. Compliments duly arrived. Most people more or less said hey keep up the good work and don’t ever change, bro. Paul McGahan was a bit more thoughtful: “Makes me feel like you are an extension of some of our finest bookshops like Scorpio or Unity Books. A winner on all counts.” Kevin Keenan: “I live for 10 months of the year in a very rural area in Eastern Thailand, no libraries, no bookshops so ReadingRoom is my lifeline.” Sue Binnie: “I am really enjoying the short stories, the little girl who ends up in the disused fridge is still with me.” She meant the the nightmarish and powerful Hayfever by Alice Tawhai.  

Amanda Mark thoroughly approved of ReadingRoom’s New Zealand-only content, and wanted more: “Be myopic, be obsessive, be biased, be in love with New Zealand writers.” Anne French disapproved, and called for coverage of international authors and books. She also enclosed a poem.

Steve wants feedback on his books page.

Its merits he’s struggling to gauge.

Punchy? ‘Simply essential’?

Dull and inconsequential?

His anxiety’s hard to assuage.

What pretty rhymes! But what merry nonsense. My anxieties about  the merits of ReadingRoom: zero. My hopes as regards ReadingRoom going forward into 2020: high.

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway competition, and shared their ideas and their generous praise. A special thanks to Sean Parker who hit a nail on the head: “The best thing about ReadingRoom was the mere fact that it came into being.”

And so, anyway, the winner of the Xmas giveaway is Bea Travern, who sent this raving incoherent ode to ReadingRoom: “It’s like a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls and read it every morning on Newsroom or shall I wear a red yes and how it kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well it as another now that New Zealand Books is gone and then I asked with my eyes to ask again yes and then asked would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my eyes around it yes and because it featured Ashleigh Young and clicked on it from my bookmarks and drew it down to me so it could feel my breasts all perfume yes and its words were going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Brilliant, insane, persuasive. Bea wins the two best novels of 2019, Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press, $35), and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35); two best books of non-fiction of 2019,  Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press, $38), and Someone’s Wife by Linda Burgess (Allen & Unwin, $37); the two best kids books of 2019,  Mophead by Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, $25), and The Adventures of Tupaia by Courtney Sina Meredith and Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin, $30), the two best books of poetry, Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry edited by Paula Green (Massey University Press, $45), and ransack by essa may ranapiri (Victoria University Press, $25),  and the two best books of self-help junk, The Invisible Load: A guide to overcoming stress by Dr Libby Weaver (Little Green Frog Publishing, $39.95), and Perform Under Pressure by Ceri Evans (HarperCollins, $39.99).

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