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BooksDecember 5, 2018

The 2018 Spinoff Review of Books Awards for New Zealand Literature

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New Zealand literature! What is it, who reads it, and why does it exist? Some or none or all of these questions are about to be answered in the third annual Spinoff Review of Books literary awards.

Some say 2018 will go down in history as the year between 2017 and 2019, but it’s too early to tell. What can be said with certainty is that it was a remarkable year for New Zealand literature. Remarkable, in the sense that it’s being remarked upon right here, right now, in the third annual Spinoff Review of Books Awards in New Zealand Literature. Each winner receives the love of the nation.

Best news

Previous winner: Ashleigh Young, for winning a lot of money (2017)

There were the usual dollops of very good news for those writers who won things or who were awarded things or who got money for just being old and not yet dead, and sometimes, not often, it was easy to share in that delight. It was grand when Renee won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement and pocketed $60,000, because everyone loves and adores her for her puckish wit, her sense of generosity, and her brilliant mind; it was deeply satisfying when Diana Wichtel was awarded the non-fiction prize at the Ockham New Zealand national book awards, because Driving to Treblinka is nothing short of a masterpiece; and there was widespread joy, too, when mermaid expert Megan Dunn won the most prestigious writer’s residency in New Zealand literature, the Surrey Hotel Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency Award in Association with The Spinoff. Huzzah! But the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best news goes to what happened to Wonky Donkey author Craig Smith.

The grandma did it. That 4:16sec video of Scottish grannie Janice Clark hooting with laughter while reading the Queenstown author’s 2009 kids book to her four-month-old grandson Archer went viral like nothing else has ever gone viral in the book trade. Scholastic ordered a print run of 500,000 to meet the demand – half a million! in one print run! – and the book is the sixth biggest seller of the year at Amazon. So fantastic, and so random. It’s always been a terrific book, although the establishment book trade never gave it much love. It won the children’s choice at the 2010 New Zealand Post children’s book award – that is, the popular vote. The judges had other ideas, and gave the supreme award to something called Old Hu-Hu. Old who? The kids knew better, and now the whole world is in love with that cranky stinky dinky lanky honky tonky winky wonky donkey. Smith – and illustrator Katz Cowley – are surely rich AF. We say: bravo Craig Smith!

Best old author

Previous winners: Fleur Adcock (2016), Helen M Hogan (2017)

Vale, Gordon Challis (1932-2018) of Takaka, author of only three collections of verse, the first two published 40 years apart, and yet one of our best poets, tender, very funny, each poem “painstakingly wrung out of his inner depths”, as described by his publisher Roger Steele. Vale, Warwick Roger (1945-2018) of Devonport, chiefly remembered as an excellent journalist and the founding editor of Metro, but was also the author of three books, including his memoir Places in the Heart and one of the best sports books ever published in New Zealand, Old Heroes: The 1956 Springbok tour and the lives beyond. Still with us, and still publishing, are John Dunmore (born 1923), who launched his book Scoundrels & Eccentrics of the Pacific at Unity Books in Wellington in June; Kevin Ireland (born 1933), who launches his latest collection of poetry, Keeping A Grip, at Devonport Library this month; and Fleur Adcock (born 1934), whose Collected Poems will be published by Victoria University Press in 2019. Huzzah ! But the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best old author goes to Maurice Gee.

The GOAT in New Zealand (born 1931) keeps threatening to write no more books, to retire, to STFU, but fortunately he keeps breaking these promises and continues to publish at a rate of knots. This year Victoria University Press published his memoir Memory Pieces and if it does not win the non-fiction gong at the 2019 Ockham New Zealand national book awards then The Spinoff Review of Books will get in a huff, and drive it. Memory Pieces is a master at work. It’s deceptively simple, even seemingly artless, until you realise his story telling has you hooked, and you come away having felt something profound. We say: bravo Maurice Gee!

Best young author

Previous winners: Hera Lindsay Bird (2016),  Annaleese Jochems (2017)

The young! Fucking millennials lol. No, they’re all good, apart from when they complain, which is most of the time. But now and then those of literary disposition bend their head to the task, and get on with it. Online journal Starling continues to publish brilliant work by writers under 25, such as Sigred Yamit, Emma Shi and 15-year-old E Wen Wong; Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor of Hamilton won the 2018 Charles Brasch Young Writers’ Essay Competition, held by Landfall, open to New Zealand writers aged 16 to 21, for her wonderful piece about – no, really – a cluster of dead bees in her student flat; and the Kirirkoria writer essa may ranapiri (born 1993) had strikingly original poems published all over the shop, including “what the poem isn’t allowed to do”, at The Spinoff. Huzzah! But the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best young author goes to Tayi Tibble.

The wildly talented Wellington writer (born 1995) was more or less a complete nobody this time last year. But then she won the IIML Adam Award, which is essentially a synonym for New Zealand’s next top writer, and then she read her moving war-widow poem “Hoki Mai” in front of 25,000 people at an Anzac Day dawn parade, and then, most noticeably of all, Victoria University Press published her debut collection Poūkahangatus. It was a best-seller and it made her a star. Praise, from novelist Cark Shuker: “The poems behave like linked short stories, revealing the world one little stab at a time.” Praise, from novelist Branavan Gnanalingham: “Tibble’s use of rhythm, her humour, her bite, the way she undercuts things with a perfect word or a sentence – she’s a genius.” We say: bravo Tayi Tibble!

Best publisher

Previous winners: Victoria University Press (2016), Bridget Williams Books (2017)

There was strong work this year from Victoria University Press, which published two dynamite collections of poetry (Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble, People from the Pit Stand Up by Sam Duckor-Jones), and even stronger work from Auckland University Press, which also published two dynamite collections of poetry (Masc by Chris Tse, That Derrida Whom I Derided Died by CK Stead), as well as a wide range of good non-fiction – the surprise best-seller, Nikki Harre’s The Infinite Game: How to live well together (a sort of antidote to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck), a memoir by Mika, a splendid guide to reptiles, and Roger Blakeley’s comprehensive study, Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, collectors and the Māori world, 1880–1910. Huzzah! But the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best publisher goes to Otago University Press.

It published the requisite two dynamite collections of poetry (Poeta by Cilla McQueen, Walking to Jutland Street by Michael Stevens), as well as a wide range of fascinating studies, including a biography of Hudson and Halls, the journals of Charles Brasch, books on Niue and West Papua, a collection of alpine writing, and a collection of intimate portraits of sex workers. But OUP went the extra mile. It did something special in 2018. In May, it launched an online archive of the first 80 issues of that brightest of all tins in the cupboard of old New Zealand culture – Landfall, 1946-1966, everything there for anyone to read and examine and love. We say: bravo Otago University Press!

Best book launch

New category. The latest issue of New Zealand Books features a story by Devonport writer Graeme Lay alleging that the book launch has become a thing of the past. Pshaw! Unity Books in Wellington hosts a book launch pretty much every week, sometimes several during the week, and Unity Books in Auckland, too, likes to throw a bash with fizz and eats and what-not. And the quality of launch speeches has never been higher. That quality is best experienced in Wellington, where lyrical, fascinating launch speeches were made this year by Greg O’Brien, Damien Wilkins, and Ashleigh Young. (There’s a promising launch next week, by the way, on Tuesday, December 11, from 7pm to 9pm, at Devonport Library, when Kevin Ireland’s latest poetry collection Keeping a Grip will be launched by….Graeme Lay). But the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best book launch goes to Craig Heatley.

His  book No Limits was launched in some style in September, at Addington Raceway in Christchurch, where 400 guests paid $100 for eats and the privilege of hearing  the millionaire entrepreneur talk about his biography, written by Joanne Black. This, from Stuff: “Heatley winged his way into the city at the controls of his own jet, with an entourage including ex-Prime Minister Sir John Key and broadcaster Murray Deaker who was the master of ceremonies. They avoided the stares of the hoi polloi as they descended the aircraft steps in their stockinged feet, to a new terminal at the headquarters of Garden City Helicopters designed especially for such visitors.” Guests included Mike Pero, Richie McCaw, and Gerry Brownlee – verily, this was one of those rare, delicious some-of-the-worst-people-in-New-Zealand-in-one-room events. We say: bravo Craig Heatley!

Best dressed author

In 2018, judging women by the way they dress is bad optics, maybe even creepy, all wrong. But judging men by the way they dress is all good, and without any ado, the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best dressed author goes to Wellington writer Chris Tse.

Chris Tse dresses well

Everyone loves Chris – his poetry, his charm, his guest curating at the 2018 LitCrawl, and, of course, the way he dresses. Those jackets! We asked him to describe his style, and he obliged: “Lately I’ve been getting most of my jackets online from ASOS and Topman (if there’s something particular I have in mind, like ‘I want a pink floral jacket’), though there’s a fair number of WORLD jackets in my collection. I go with my gut when I see something I like – if it’s an instant attraction, I know it’s meant to be. The jacket does form the foundation of an outift – I fit everything else around it.

“Putting on a fantastic jacket or suit is like putting on armour, an instant confidence boost. My mum sometimes questions what I wear, mostly because I’m one of the few in the family who strays from solid blacks into patterns and colours. When I started buying my own clothes it was a revelation – like tapping into a part of my identity I didn’t know existed.” We say: bravo Chris Tse!

Best review

Previous winners: Charlotte Grimshaw (2016), Matt Heath (2017)

There were a bunch of really good, really mean reviews published in 2018. Mean isn’t any kind of particular virtue of and in itself but when it’s incisive, when it’s powerful, when it’s honest, it suggests straightaway that the reviewer is perfectly capable of critical thinking without feeling any kind of boring need to be nice or act as PR agent for New Zealand literature, and that they are setting out purely and thoroughly to review the work. And so the best reviews included Charlotte Grimshaw’s patient demolition, in the Listener, of Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn (“fatuous”); Mark Reason, at Stuff, more or less telling Keith Murdoch’s biographer Ron Palenski to go fuck himself; Breton Dukes, in Landfall, taking apart Low Life by Michael Botur; and Kirstie Ross, in New Zealand Books, plainly loathing the phoneyness of Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second War by Stefan Eldred-Grigg. Huzzah! But the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best review goes to Fleur Adcock.

“Threesomes (and foursomes) in Titirangi”, her review at The Spinoff Review of Books of Philip Temple’s biography of Maurice Shadbolt, wasn’t exactly or certainly not entirely mean. “A solid and patiently researched opus,” she wrote. However she found just cause to lay the book out on the operating table and remove its vital organs: this fact was nonsense, that fact was all wrong. Adcock knew her subject. She and Shadbolt were lovers. And so her review also functioned as a memoir; she left the book behind, and made fascinating journeys into her past, a master gossip with a high style, funny, alert, shrewd. Could she please write her own memoir? Her book would be great. We say: bravo Fleur Adcock!

Best essay

New category. Some of the best essays of the year appeared at The Spinoff, such as Chris Barton’s memoir “Where have you been?”, and Peter Wells’s “Hello Darkness” cancer series, which is due to be published as a book in early 2019. There was also Ashleigh Young’s “Bird Brain”, a searching, fractured contemplation of Nigel the tragic gannet, on her blog Eyelash Roaming; Talia Marshall’s memoir with birds in it,“This Is the Way He Walked Into the Darkest, Pinkest Part of the Whale and Cried Don’t Tell the Others”, in the February issue of the distinguished US journal Poetry, devoted to New Zealand writing; and the despatches on mental health by such as Aimie Cronin, Holly Walker and Danyl McLauchlan, collected and edited by Naomi Arnold in the book Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety. Huzzah! But the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best essay goes to Linda Burgess.

Linda Burgess getting on the All Blacks supporter bus in Edinburgh (Credit:
Barry Durrant)

She wrote not one but two incredible essays for The Spinoff this year. There was her memoir “Toby” and her memoir “The first WAGs”. Both were personal essays, the former heartbreaking but never pleading for any kind of sympathy, the latter simply a tour de force. The rumour is that the essays have prompted a publisher to commission a memoir from the author. We say, with special warmth and regard: bravo Linda Burgess!

Best writing for the cinema

New category. No preamble, no finalists, just one flat-out winner, and we cut to the chase and zoom in and announce that the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best writing for the cinema goes to Anthony McCarten.

Critics lined up around the block to give the New Plymouth-born screenwriter a hiding when his latest film Bohemian Rhapsody was released. Ghastly, they said; a mish-mash, cliched, embarrassing, they said; dumb, they said. They said the same things all those years about Queen, the subject of McCarten’s biopic. They didn’t understand then and they didn’t understand now. It’s about the show, darling. McCarten is likely the best screenwriter in the world when it comes to putting on a show – for his lead actors. Eddie Redmayne won the best actor Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking in McCarten’s The Brief History of Everything; Gary Oldman won the best actor Oscar for playing Winston Churchill in McCartern’s Darkest Hour. Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody acts his teeth off and ought to be considered for an Oscar. It’s a bravura performance, all in the higher register, pure opera. McCarten writes for character by way of recognising big moments – joy, agony, majesty, the view of stars from the gutter – and his actors lap it up. We say: bravo Anthony McCarten!

Best Poem

Previous winners: “To miss the point entirely” by Vincent O’Sullivan (2016), “Flying fuck” by James Brown (2017)

2018 was a vintage year, a champagne year, for New Zealand poetry, as recorded and preserved in the essential anthology The Friday Poem: 100 New Zealand Poems. it included many of the best poems published this year at The Spinoff Review of Books, such as “Grief Limericks” by Harry Ricketts, “I want to get high my whole life with you” by Hera Linday Bird, Kei te whakaako au i taku kurī/ I am teaching my dog Māori” by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, “Ode to Auckland” by Ian Wedde, “But when?” by Rachel McApine, and ‘Mère-mare’ by Emma Neale. Outside of The Spinoff, there were many wonderful poems, and the best of 2018 included “Just Peachy” by Joy Holley in Starling; “Collusions” by Nina Powles in New Zealand Books; “Sweatercore” by Ursula Robinson-Shaw in Minarets; and “Dairy Queen” by Rebecca Hawkes in Scum. Huzzah! But the 2018 Spinoff Review of Books award for best poem goes to Hamilton writer Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor.

Her poem “Instructions”, published in Starling, operates on several levels. It’s a love story, it’s a diary, it’s a kind of quiz. It’s the best poem of 2018. We say: thank you to Starling for permission to reprint the poem, and bravo Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor!


1. Be fifteen. Fall in love with your best friend. This will last for five years. Collect white roses. Watch it end. (Proceed to step 3)

2. Fall in love again and know that you will always love him different. Seven years later, stay in the room when the Proclaimers play. Reclaim the local museum. The park bench. The rooftop. When he invites you to his wedding, accept. (14)

3. Get drunk. Dance with some guy that looks nothing like him. Dance until the lights come up and he can see the mascara smeared on your cheeks, the freckles on your neck, your eyes burning with spirits. When he asks if you wanna get outta there, make him wait (proceed to 5) or follow him to the taxi (4).

4. Diamonds you txt him. Spades you don’t. Pull a card. Spades. Txt him anyway. (Proceed to 7)

4a. He only txts you back when it’s cold. (8)

5. Walk into the pizza store the next day and see him there behind the counter. It is 2pm and you have your first hangover. You are wearing your work uniform which makes you look like a minimum-wage orca. Lift your chin up and give him your best migraine smoulder. When he scrawls his number on the napkin, tell him he’s seen too many John Cusack films. (Proceed to 4)

6. When the priest asks if there is any objection scrunch your toes in your shoes and look at Jesus all ripped and bleeding up there. Tell yourself that he will come to love her, that he will smile again like you remember. That if you were meant to be, you would have. Sit still. This is the only way left for you to love him.

7. Invite him over and, for once, don’t plan what you’re going to do. Swallow a screwdriver in one. Draw a blank. When he sprawls across your couch and grins at you real confident, draw another. When you go to fill in your application to enrol, draw him. (You’re an embarrassment. 9)

8. Fall for him. Hard. Ignore your friends. Hear the warning bells and fill them with shaving cream. Learn to live with the dull ringing. (16)

9. (4a). Idiot.

10. Stand up on the pew and say that his smile doesn’t reach his eyes anymore. That he speaks quietly now. Let her taffeta and lace blur as you stare right at him. Tell him that soul-mate sounds a lot like cell-mate. Tell him that you still love him. (Recede to step 3)

11. You have never successfully broken a rule. The second time hurts just as much as the first. You demand that he is entirely honest with you this time. He is. It is not enough. He learns to cry. It ends, again, and it is just as hard. (13)

12. When your first love asks you to take him back, do so. Kick Cusack to the kerb and run into his arms. Because exes trying again is not a good idea ever, except in this case. (11 for you, Miss Exceptional)

13. Write a lot of bad poetry. Ignore your better judgement and write it self-indulgent. Slam until your tongue bleeds and your throat dries and your mother buys you self-help books. (15)

14. The priest will smile and ask if anyone objects. Stand up (10). Stay seated (6).

15. One day you will forget the smell of his favourite cologne. This is a good thing. Keep writing. Eventually, you will write about something other than him. (2)

16. Make yourself smaller. Quieter. Calmer. Hate him for wanting to change you. Try to change him instead. (12)

Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor, 2018

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

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