Books editor Claire Mabey and poetry consultant Louise Wallace analyse this year’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards long (really quite long) list.
Here are the books longlisted for the 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards (for books published between 1 January 2022 and 31 December 2022). We’ve listed them all below along with thoughts from our books editor Claire Mabey and poet Louise Wallace. The asterisks mark the debut books which will also be up for the Best First Book prize.
Some key things to note before we start:
1. There was a record number of entries this year (191, which is a 20 per cent increase on 2022); and a record number of books longlisted, with a total of 44 (there were 39 in 2022). This is because the General Non-Fiction judges were allowed to pick up to 14 titles this year instead of just 10. Nicola Legat (Book Awards Trust Chair) said that was because there are so many more entries for this category compared to the rest. There still can only be four in the shortlist, though.
2. Almost a third of the longlistees are first-time authors, which is heaps more than in previous years.
3. The prize money has increased! The winner of the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction will receive $64,000 in 2023 and each of the other main category prizes will earn their winners $12,000 (up from $10,000). Each of the Best First Book winners will be awarded $3,000 (up from $2,500). Let it rain authors, let it rain.
4. The shortlist of 16 titles will be announced on 8 March.
Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction ($64,000 prize)
Better the Blood by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)
Chevalier & Gawayn: The Ballad of the Dreamer by Phillip Mann (Quentin Wilson Publishing)
Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens (Lawrence & Gibson)
Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood (Te Herenga Waka University Press)*
How to Loiter in a Turf War by Coco Solid (Penguin, Penguin Random House)*
Kāwai: For Such a Time as This by Monty Soutar (Bateman Books)
Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories by Vincent O’Sullivan (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press)
The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
The Fish by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, Penguin Random House)
Initial thoughts: Six dudes! Is that also a record? Last year there was only one (Bryan Walpert for Entanglement). And a crime novel! Great going by Michael Bennett with Better the Blood, an exploration of the crimes of colonisation via the character of cop Hana Westerman who investigates a serial killer bent on revenge for the historic murder of a rangatira (read more right here).
Excellent to see my two sure things The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey, and How to Loiter in a Turf War by Coco Solid on the list. Te Herenga Waka Univeristy Press still dominates with three books among the final ten. All up this list does present an eclectic mix: contemporary novels with eyes on class divides and other hypocrisies; historical fiction; short story collections; crime; and a fantasy/allegory/sci-fi (more below).
The thrills: Delighted to see short story collections Home Theatre by debut author Anthony Lapwood, and Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques and Other Stories by beloved and revered literary giant Vincent O’Sullivan. I’ve personally still not come down off the high of Airini Beautrais’ short story collection Bug Week winning the big prize in 2021 and given the rise and rise of the short story in Aotearoa it seems apt to see both collections here, in a place where traditionally, the novel form reigns.
Hidden gems: Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press); and Chevalier & Gawayn: The Ballad of the Dreamer by Phillip Mann (Quentin Wilson Publishing). The former is a vivid re-telling of a historic Aotearoa shipwreck that left 14 men and one woman stuck on a remote island in the sub-Antarctic, their gold loot sunk. The novel has been widely talked about in bookish circles as a gripping novel laden with precision and absorbing place-making. Its position in the longlist will no doubt nudge its profile further.
Phillip Mann was a much loved writer, and theatre director, who sadly passed away at the end of 2022, just after Chevalier & Gawayn launched. The novel has flown somewhat under the radar, but listen to this intriguing premise: “Once upon a time in the future, things are looking grim. Plague stalks the land, people live behind city walls, or underground, or huddle in remote ham-lets. No more animals, no more birdlife, no more freedom … never has the divide between rich and poor been so evident, never has the Earth been so despoiled, and never has the need for a hero been stronger. Enter Chevalier, an unassuming and mild-man-nered tax inspector by day but a secret law-breaker and risk-taker by night who decides to experiment with a new virtual reality headset – CIRCE.”
The surprising: Where is Poor People With Money by Dominic Hoey? A terrific novel of pace and tightly controlled chaos, with a unique voice, empathy and humour, too. I have no doubt that Hoey will be here in future but I did think this novel might have had a chance. Also confused as to why Slow Down, You’re Here by Brannavan Gnanalingam isn’t on this list. It’s a novel that has stuck firmly in my mind as a superbly paced thriller with a finger almost too accurately pressed to the horrors of our times. On the other hand, delighted that Gnanalingam’s fellow Lawrence & Gibson author, Murdoch Stephens, is here with Down from Upland, which perhaps hasn’t quite had the airtime it deserves. No doubt this will give this novel, which holds an often excruciatingly precise mirror up to the millennial middle classes, will enjoy an incoming of readers from here on in.
I suspect that there will be some disappointed Chloe Lane fans out there (me among them). Arms & Legs is a burning, incisive exploration of a relationship under the duress of parenthood and other things. Alongside the two in the longlist, there were three further outstanding short story collections last year: Kōhine by Colleen Maria Lenihan, Beats of the Pa’u by Maria Samuela, and Return to Harikoa Bay by Owen Marshall. I feel for every one of those authors: their excellence, as well as the longlist success of their colleagues, is a marker of the continued rise and rise of the short story form in Aotearoa, and just how excellent we are at it.
Finally, on The Fish by Lloyd Jones: this has been a curious one and I predict some consternation. I personally felt the novel was a brave reckoning with the dark sides of family, memory and the self. It is not an easy book for that reason: the protagonist moves from childhood and into the adult years with blind spots and trauma, and it’s only through the act of telling and re-telling his stories that he can keep going, and make some sense of his life and the life of those closest to him. Some readers were irritated by the allegory and troubled by the slippery nature of the storytelling. I for one am glad the novel is here: it is troubled, unresolvable material, and made for a troubled, unresolvable narrative (the point). / Claire Mabey
Shortlist: Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey, How to Loiter in a Turf War by Coco Solid, Mary’s Boy-Jean Jacques and other stories by Vincent O’Sullivan, Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens
Best first book: How to Loiter in a Turf by Coco Solid
The winner: The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey
Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry ($12,000 prize)
Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised by Alice Te Punga Somerville (Auckland University Press)
Echidna by essa may ranapiri (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Meat Lovers by Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press)*
Night School by Michael Steven (Otago University Press)
People Person by Joanna Cho (Te Herenga Waka University Press)*
Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea (Taraheke | Bush Lawyer)*
Super Model Minority by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press)
Surrender by Michaela Keeble (Taraheke | Bush Lawyer)*
The Pistils by Janet Charman (Otago University Press)
We’re All Made of Lightning by Khadro Mohamed (We Are Babies Press, Tender Press)*
Initial thoughts: The collections here are deeply personal and very political. A bold and challenging longlist, especially when you consider what was left off it. The Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry fills a very necessary space of recognising excellence for a poetry collection as a whole – acknowledging not only the individual poems, but how they work together or weave a narrative, and the reading experience such a collection can provide.
The thrills: I am thrilled to see the two collections published last year by Taraheke | Bush Lawyer on this list: Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea and Surrender by Michaela Keeble. If you haven’t heard of this publisher, please do read more about them here. Both Gildea and Keeble’s collections are superbly crafted explorations of whenua and feeling. Along with Alice Te Punga Somerville’s longlisted collection Always Italicise: how to write while colonised (Auckland University Press), these books issue a challenge.
Another small yelp of delight to find Khadro Mohamed’s We’re All Made of Lightning. Mohamed’s sensory writing carries the reader along, exploring the various strands of her identity. It’s again so gratifying to see the work of publisher, Tender Press (formerly We Are Babies), recognised in this way.
Two titles on the list that I considered sure things, were Meat Lovers by Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press) and Echidna by essa may ranapiri (Te Herenga Waka University Press). Visionary and singular in voice. I don’t know what else to say here. A no brainer. Who could not fall in love with the rural gothic horror of Hawke’s collection and the epic (funny, sexy, commanding) voyage of ranapiri’s Echidna? And on that note, our laureate, our deity, Chris Tse and his longlisted collection Super Model Minority (Auckland University Press). You’d be mad not to. But also, the book deserves it. A vast read covering race and sexuality, flashing between tenderness and rage and hope.
The surprises: I am personally bereft to see Jordan Hamel’s excellent debut collection, Everyone is Everyone Except You (Dead Bird Books) missing from the list. Incredibly funny, overflowing with pop culture references and taking a good hard look at masculinity in Aotearoa. Simone Kaho also produced a striking collection, HEAL! with Saufo’i Press. Other notable absences include Nick Ascroft and Oscar Upperton (both Te Herenga Waka University Press), whose 2022 collections garnered a lot of praise. Let alone the names Smither, Sullivan, O’Brien… and more. What were the judges to do? In what has been described as a bumper year? In what was already prophesised would be a… bloodbath? An incredible five longlistees are eligible for Best First Book (Hawkes, Cho, Gildea, Keeble and Mohamed), which speaks to the quality of these voices. It seems to me, the judges selected the books that moved them, that stayed with them even after some time. It feels right to acknowledge the mahi of judges Diane Brown, Serie Barford and Gregory Kan in making these choices.
The hidden gems: The could-come-out-of-nowhere-and-take-it-all contenders are Night School by Michael Steven and The Pistils by Janet Charman, both published with Otago University Press. Steven’s gritty poems evoke time and place like no other, while Charman’s ninth collection navigating age and bereavement is as sharp as the excellent cover image. Finally, People Person by Joanna Cho (Te Herenga Waka University Press) is filled with brilliantly surrealist poems, some of my favourites this year. The book is a love letter to family and her mother (peppered with beautiful illustrations by Cho’s mum) and one to seek out. / Louise Wallace
Shortlist: Sedition, Anahera Maire Gildea (Taraheke | Bush Lawyer); Meat Lovers, Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press); Echidna, essa may ranapiri (Te Herenga Waka University Press); Super Model Minority, Chris Tse (Auckland University Press)
Best first book: Meat Lovers, Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press)
The winner: Echidna, essa may ranapiri (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction ($12,000 prize)
I am Autistic by Chanelle Moriah (Allen & Unwin)*
Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press)
Kai: Food Stories and Recipes from my Family Table by Christall Lowe (Bateman Books)*
Nature Boy: The Photography of Olaf Petersen edited by Catherine Hammond and Shaun Higgins (Auckland University Press)
Paradise Camp by Yuki Kihara, edited by Natalie King (Thames & Hudson Australia)
Robin White: Something is Happening Here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga (Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)
Secrets of the Sea: The Story of New Zealand’s Native Sea Creatures by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins)
Tāngata Ngāi Tahu | People of Ngāi Tahu Volume Two edited by Helen Brown and Michael J Stevens (Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Bridget Williams Books)
Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan (Bridget Williams Books)
Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art edited by Nigel Borell (Penguin Random House New Zealand in association with Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)
Initial thoughts: Eesh. Tricky. I do not envy the judges here. Aotearoa illustrated non-fiction publishing is in terrific form as seen here represented by no fewer than seven publishers: Bridget Williams Books, Thames & Hudson, Harper Collins, Auckland University Press, Allen & Unwin, Penguin Random House and Bateman Books.
The thrills: The publishing journey of I Am Autistic by Chanelle Moriah has been a joy to watch. The book is a first of its kind: smashing through stereotypes and presenting a clear, interactive tool for those eager to either learn about themselves, or people around them. Bravos all round to Moriah and to Allen & Unwin who snapped this book right up.
Delighted for Rachel Buchanan whose book Te Motonui Epa is a profound work of deep research, deep connection, deep love and deep pain. Read more about the book on e-tangata here.
And hurrah for Nick Bollinger, surely one of the most passionate music historians working in Aotearoa today. Jumping Sundays is a vivid account of 1960-70s counter-culture, tracking festivals and gatherings, radicals and bohemians, agitating against the politics of the time.
Hidden gem: Kai: Food Stories and Recipes from my Family Table by Christall Lowe is the solitary cookbook on the list and it absolutely deserves to be there: beautifully produced, delicious recipes and all with an infectious passion for ingredients and the place of food in our lives.
The surprising: I have to mark the absence of Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records 1981–1988 by Matthew Goody (Auckland University Press) – a beautifully produced book that really brings home the fecund years of experimentation and sonic artistry that formed the foundations of one of our most beloved labels. However, other than that, this category reads well for me. It must have been a hell of a stack to shortlist and I think the judges have done a stellar job. / CM
Shortlist: Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art edited by Nigel Borell (Penguin Random House New Zealand in association with Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki); Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan (Bridget Williams Books); Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press); Robin White: Something is Happening Here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga (Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)
Best first book: I am Autistic by Chanelle Moriah (Allen & Unwin)*
The winner: Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan (Bridget Williams Books)
General Non-Fiction Award ($12,000 prize)
A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna by Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor (Auckland University Press)
A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects by Jock Phillips (Penguin, Penguin Random House)
Democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Survival Guide by Geoffrey Palmer and Gwen Palmer Steeds (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press)
Empire City: Wellington Becomes the Capital of New Zealand by John E Martin (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Every Sign of Life: On Family Ground by Nicholas Lyon Gresson (Quentin Wilson Publishing)
Gaylene’s Take: Her Life in New Zealand Film by Gaylene Preston (Te Herenga Waka University Press)*
Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, Penguin Random House)*
Lāuga: Understanding Samoan Oratory by Sadat Muaiava (Te Papa Press)*
So Far, For Now: On Journeys, Widowhood and Stories that are Never Over by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, Penguin Random House)
The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi by Ned Fletcher (Bridget Williams Books)*
The Road to Gondwana: In Search of the Lost Supercontinent by Bill Morris (Exisle Publishing)*
Thief, Convict, Pirate, Wife: The Many Histories of Charlotte Badger by Jennifer Ashton (Auckland University Press)
You Probably Think This Song is About You by Kate Camp (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Initial thoughts: I still don’t understand this category. It’s apples and oranges and pears. The bugbear is: how do you judge a category that includes literary forms (like personal essays and memoir), which have the freedom to use the tools of fiction; and that also includes literary forms that must employ plain English and robust research methods to be successful (e.g. history and academic texts)? This is not to say that the latter books don’t use the tools of fiction, where appropriate, and that the former doesn’t use robust research, but by and large the two genres serve a different purpose.
And look, I did ask, again, about why there’s not a separate category for creative non-fiction and here is the response from Nicola Legat, chair of the Trust:
“The New Zealand Book Awards Trust is very aware of the suggestions that there be a new creative non-fiction category and that all other non-fiction – history, biography, natural history and so on – be judged as a separate category. We examine this matter every year and each time we come to the conclusion that there would not, on a consistent basis, be enough high-quality entries to allow robust judging across the two categories.
The perception is that creative non-fiction misses out within the one category, but in fact in the last few years the category’s longlist, shortlist and winners regularly feature creative non-fiction titles.
The question of securing additional sponsorship to cover the cost of prize money and other expenses for a new category is not the driver of our thinking.
Our judges tell us each year that although the category is a huge mix of genres they do not, in the end, experience any difficulty in drawing up the longlist and the shortlist and in feeling clear about who should be the winner. We are aware, however, that the entries in this category are higher than in any other and that is why we have increased the size of the longlist, so that more can be lauded.”
That all sounds considered, and excellent to know that the whining issued from the likes of me is heard. And yet, is making the longlist for this category even longer a solution? It still has to be whittled down to four for the shortlist, and then just one winner and a best first book. Plus, there are still glaring absences in this longer than usual longlist … see below.
The thrills: So Far, For Now by Fiona Kidman is one of my favourite books of 2022. The essays are wide-ranging, written in Kidman’s fluid, frank style that pulls you right up close to her experiences as a writer, a traveler, and a widow.
I think the whole country will be pleased to see Noelle McCarthy’s Grand, and likewise Kate Camp’s You Probably Think This Song Is About You. Both, exceptional and deserving of this honour.
Ned Fletcher’s The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi deserves to be on this list for sheer effort alone. We are forever grateful to Morgan Godfery for reviewing this epic piece of work for us here.
Hidden Gem: Two from Auckland University Press: Thief, Convict, Pirate, Wife: The Many Histories of Charlotte Badger by Jennifer Ashton has one of the coolest covers of 2022 (by Xoë Hall) and is a brilliant reckoning with a storied historical figure. And, A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna by Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor (Auckland University Press), with another extraordinary cover by Shane Cotton. This book offers the stories of 24 tūpuna of Te Tai Tokerau and is quite simply, extraordinary.
The surprises: Super shame not to see Mohamed Hassan’s How to be a Bad Muslim, and Sarah Jane Barnett’s Notes on Womanhood, both extremely strong essay collections in 2022. For me, Hassan’s collection is one of the best of 2022 and I fully expected to see it here. This is where I do think it’s difficult for creative non-fiction to compete in a category that has so many other pulls on it. Also think we are missing out on Raiment by Jan Kemp, a memoir of grit and awe, and feminism. / CM
Shortlist: Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, Penguin Random House); A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna by Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor (Auckland University Press); Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press); You Probably Think This Song is About You by Kate Camp (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Best first book: The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi by Ned Fletcher (Bridget Williams Books)*
The winner: Genuinely stabbing in the shadows but I’m going to stick a Grand-sized stake in the heart of this category and say Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, Penguin Random House)
Kudos to the judges. A hell of a task every year. Please applaud, over your morning coffee, the following:
The Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction: Bestselling author, critic and creative writing teacher Stephanie Johnson (convenor); editor and literature assessor John Huria (Ngāi Tahu, Muaūpoko, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, Ngāti Rangi); and Rotorua bookseller Jemma Morrison. They will be joined in deciding the ultimate winner from their shortlist of four by an international judge.
The Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry: Dunedin poet, author and creative writing tutor Diane Brown (convenor); poet and kaiako Serie Barford; and Wellington poet and Grimshaw-Sargeson Fellow Gregory Kan.
The Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction: Award-winning writer, historian and archivist Jared Davidson (convenor); writer and curator Dr Anna-Marie White (Te Ātiawa); and veteran television producer Taualeo’o Stephen Stehlin MNZM.
The General Non-Fiction Award will be judged by: Writer and award-winning columnist (and The Spinoff’s very own) Anna Rawhiti-Connell (convenor); prize-winning author, academic and researcher Alison Jones; and historian Professor Te Maire Tau (Ūpoko of Ngāi Tūāhuriri, a hapu of Ngāi Tahu).
Happy reading one and all. See you when the shortlist comes out on 8 March: we’ll be here with the thrills and spills.