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BooksDecember 6, 2017

The second annual Spinoff Review of Books literary awards (including best dressed author)!!!


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 second annual Spinoff Review of Books literary awards!!!

Some say 2017 will go down in history as the year between 2016 and 2018, 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 second annual Spinoff Review of Books literary awards; so let’s get on with it! The envelopes and such, please!

Best news

A number of things have put on a smile on the dial of New Zealand literature this year. There was the ongoing world domination of Hera Lindsay Bird, whose poetry first went viral in 2016 courtesy of the Spinoff, and has led to Penguin UK publishing her book; there was the excitement of the early hype campaign for Eleanor Catton’s new novel, to be published sometime in 2018; and there was the all-round good news and good tonic of Jacinda Ardern becoming the minister of arts. Huzzah! But the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best news goes to the massive amount of loot awarded to Ashleigh Young.

Ashleigh Young

It came out of the blue and it couldn’t have gone to a more lavishly gifted writer. Young had never even heard of the Windham-Campbell prize – who had? The beauty of the Yale University award is that it’s just sprung on unsuspecting authors without any warning or shortlist or whatnot, and the recipient pockets $US165,000. The precise figure Young got in New Zealand dollars was $229,837.07. Jesus! It was in recognition of her book of essays, Can You Tolerate This?, which then went on to earn the Wellington author another $10,000 when it won the 2017 Ockham New Zealand national book award for non-fiction. Her run of good fortune and just reward actually began in 2016, when she was judged a runner-up in the first annual Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency in Association with The Spinoff Award. There was no stopping her after that. We say: bravo Ash!

Best young author

Young people! They’re so young. Marissa McGill (year 7, Matamata) and Holly Carson (year 8, Paremata) were judged the best intermediate school writers in New Zealand by the Young NZ Writers group; Wellington High School Year 12 student Zora Patrick won the 2017 national schools poetry award; and blazing talents such as Claudia Jardine appeared in the always lively online literary journal Starling, which publishes new writing by poets and story tellers 25 and under. Huzzah! But the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best young author goes to Annaleese Jochems.

Annaleese Jochems

At 23, she became a debut novelist this year with Baby, published by Victoria University Press. It was longlisted for the 2018 Ockham national book awards and ought to be a shoo-in to win best first novel. The reviews were adoring, including the one at the Spinoff by Louisa Kasza, who wrote:  “Buy it and read it now, and you can brag about it one day the way people who bought and read Emily Perkins’s Not Her Real Name in 1996 do today.” We say: bravo Annaleese!

Best old author

Vale, John McIntyre (1951-2017), co-owner of The Children’s Bookshop in Wellington, and one of the most significant figures in New Zealand children’s literature. Vale, Tui Flower (1925-2017), author of some of the biggest-selling cookbooks ever published in New Zealand. Still with us, and still active and brilliant and capable of writing better than you, are CK Stead (born 1932), who published an excellent novel, Necessary Angel; Fleur Adcock (born 1934), whose latest poetry collection Hoard was disgracefully overlooked by judges of the 2018 Ockham New Zealand national book awards; and Lloyd Geering (born 1918), older than God, and in terrific form onstage at the Auckland Writers Festival in May. Huzzah! But the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best old author goes to Helen Hogan.

Helen Hogan

Born in Christchurch in 1923, she edited numerous anthologies of New Zealand secondary school poetry in the 1970s, giving important early support to nascent writers such as Andrew Johnston (winner of this year’s Ockham national book award for poetry) and Steve Braunias. Later, at a ripe old age, she studied for a PhD in Māori, and published three books which translated early 19th century Māori manuscripts. She turned in a sparkling essay for the Spinoff this year on the subject of her poetry anthologies, and in a postscript about her teaching and writing, she commented: “I suppose at the age of 94 I should be hanging up my boots, but I think that would be the death of me.” We say: bravo Helen!

Best book cover

Of course you can judge a book by its cover. It’s called the Publisher’s Association best book cover of the year award. This year it went to the cookbook Cazador (designed by Tim Donaldson and Amanda Gaskin), which caused a bit of a fuss at the Spinoff.

There were also striking covers of The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road (artist Joshua Drummond) by Steve Braunias; Lily Max 3: Sun, Surf, Action (illustrator Guy Fisher) by Jane Bloomfield; and Aoetaroa: The New Zealand Story by author and illustrator Gavin Bishop. Huzzah! But the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best cover goes to Keely O’Shannessy for her cover of Baby by Annaleese Jochems.

It’s got a pink background (“millennial pink”, claimed Louisa Kasza, in her review; what?) and a white bread jam sandwich in the middle of it with a bite out of it. It looks good enough to eat. It also looks good enough to make you want to read it. We say: bravo Keely!

Best review

Best reviewer actually used to be a category at the national book awards. David Eggleton won it numerous times; Michael King won it, posthumously; there even used to be a best review section at the awards, too. Oh well! The Spinoff Review of Books would win that prize hands-down in 2017 – but what about the reviewer? Our finalists would be David Larsen, for his excited, querulous, passionate live blog review of the Auckland Writers Festival, published online for Metro; Carl Shuker, for his excited, querulous, passionate review of The New Animals by Pip Adam, at the Spinoff, with added dismissive remarks about the state of reviewing in New Zealand; and the much-derided, much-scorned but tremendously lively review of the poetry and cult of Hera Lindsay Bird, by Peter Schimmel in New Zealand Books. Huzzah! But the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best review goes to Matt Heath of the New Zealand Herald.

Heath’s weekly Herald column on July 31 was devoted to a review of  The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road by Steve Braunias, and it was the kind of review every author would cut off both their hands for without pause or regret. “I have been reading this life-changing book to my boys at bedtime,” wrote Heath. “It’s an epic journey that’s gone down better with my kids than The BFGCharlie and the Chocolate Factory and all the Potter books combined. It’s all they talk about…. I don’t know if it was luck or design or bad luck and design but the book hits the key plot points of all great epics. Its turning points are exactly at the right time. A redemption that brings parts of the first and second act together and like all great tales a heart-wrenching death at the three-quarter mark…. Surely he is our nation’s greatest writer.” Surely Heath is our nation’s greatest reviewer. We say: bravo Matt!

Best literary festival

Is there such a thing as a bad literary festival? Yes. Boring, starchy talkers; boring, starchy audiences – every festival has sessions with one or both, it can’t be avoided, and the trick is to keep it to a minimum. There were superstars such as George Saunders at the Auckland Writers Festival; the one in Nelson was curated with typical flair and an eye for good story-telling by co-ordinator Naomi Arnold; and the Going West festival benefited greatly by its shift from boring, starchy Titirangi to lively, happy Henderson. Huzzah! But the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best writers festival goes to LitCrawl in Wellington.

Claire Mabey and Andrew Laking of Pirate & Queen productions are the pirate king and queen of live literary performance in New Zealand, and they put on their best – most action-packed, most ambitious – LitCrawl to date, with loads of writers yapping on at loads of venues around and about the vortex of Cuba Street. It went off. It was fun. Above all, it worked. We say: bravo LitCrawl!

Best publisher

Victoria University Press published the year’s best collection of poems, Some Things to Place in a Coffin by Bill Manhire, but it also published a couple of unreadable writing exercises by Tim Corballis and Catherine Chidgey, and the shame of it disqualifies VUP from appearing on the 2017 best publisher list. Those who do qualify are Allen & Unwin, which has a sure grasp of what sells but isn’t brainless, such as Miriam Lancewood’s Woman in the Wilderness and Drawn Out by Tom Scott; Auckland University Press, with a range of strong titles devoted to our culture and history, such as Tears of Rangi by Anne Salmond; and Lawrence and Gibson, for publishing the year’s two most revealing novels about New Zealand life, Milk Island by Rhydian Thomas and Sodden Downstream by Brannavn Gnanalingam. Huzzah! But the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best publisher goes to Bridget Williams Books.

All 50 BWB titles (Image: @BWB_NZ Twitter)

They publish the smartest list in New Zealand. In 2017, their series of essays and social insights included such excellent reads as The Whole Intimate Mess by Holly Walker and the best-selling The New Zealand Project by Max Harris. These and many of their other books are vital to the intellectual and cultural well-being of New Zealand life. We say: bravo Bridget Williams Books!

Best guest

They came far and further away to appear at literary festivals in New Zealand in 2017. The best included Man Booker winner George Saunders; Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race author Reni Eddo-Lodge; AN Wilson (who was so taken with Christchurch that he immediately wrote a novel about the earthquakes; it’s expected to be published in 2018); and Clementine Ford, of whom Christchurch WORD co-ordinator Rachael King said, “She sold out almost immediately so we put on another show and that sold out even faster. She was fearless, funny and both engaging and engaged with the audience. She shared some of the hate mail she has received and everybody left with their blood boiling.” Huzzah! But the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best guest goes to an author who wasn’t here on literary festival business, was just here to drink wine and buy books: Duncan McLean, of the Orkney Islands in Scotland.

McLean is a wine merchant. He won a prize: free travel to New Zealand, and a tour of the vineyards. He’s also the author of short story collections and an excellent travel book about American country music, and he more or less discovered Irvine Welsh when he published early drafts of Trainspotting in a literary magazine. A few years ago he formed a deeply felt love for the works of Frank Sargeson. He arranged to meet and talk with numerous New Zealand writers about Sargeson while he was out here last summer, and one of the results is an essay which is due to be published in the Diary page in the world’s best literary journal, The London Review of Books. In the meantime he’s published verse by Hera Lindsay Bird in Scotland, written for The Spinoff, and has generally become a kind of ambassador for New Zealand writing. We say: oh aye, bravo Duncan!

Best dressed

Most writers wear variations of dressing gowns, but there are some who make the effort to look not just sane but sharp. Tracey Slaughter does a terrific impersonation of traffic lights by very often wearing green to go with her red hair; Chris Tse stepped out at LitCrawl in Wellington wearing a silver jacket that was so dazzling that it may have been plugged in; and Hera Lindsay Bird has reinvented the collar. Huzzah! But the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best dressed author goes to Peter Wells.

Peter is unwell. He is writing about his illness on his Facebook page and like everything he writes it is a beautiful, striking, vivid work of art. You could say the same about the way he dresses himself. We say: you’re amazing, Peter.

Best poem

The Friday Poem at the Spinoff is a weekly appointment with genius and stands as the best advertisement for New Zealand poetry in the country. Awesome work continues to appear elsewhere, of course, and the best of 2017 included  “When the person you love leaves you in the night”  by Joy Holley at Starling; “If I had your baby in my uterus I would probably kill it with abortion” by Freya Sadgrove at Sweet Mammalian; while the best of the best at the Spinoff included “Thread” by Bill Manhire, “The Name in the Freezer” by Elizabeth Smither, “Pretty” by Simone Kaho, and “Boxing Day” by Peter Olds.

Huzzah! But the very best poem at the Spinoff, and indeed the 2017 Spinoff Review of Books award for best poem, goes to “Flying Fuck” by James Brown.

It’s a message for the ages. It’s a message to take to heart and remember this Christmas. it’s six lines and each of them is magic – actually there’s a mathematical instruction in the poem which recommends you only read the first three lines, but you need those last three lines to make you read the first three lines twice. We say: bravo James Brown!


“Flying Fuck” by James Brown


We spend too much time

doing things for people who don’t

give a flying fuck about us.


What is a flying fuck anyway?

Is that line earning its place?

It could probably be cut.


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

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