Winner of our great book prize announced as Elizabeth Knox is proved most popular author of all times

Elizabeth Knox – whose novel The Vintner’s Luck has been named by Spinoff readers as the best New Zealand book of the past 50 years – reaches into her sunhat and plucks out the name of a lucky winner in our amazing book prize. 

The Spinoff Review of Books recently published the entire list of every New Zealand book which has won a national book award since 1968, to mark the 50th anniversary of book prizes. We then asked readers to select their favourite 20 titles, and send us their choices as a way of entering their very own book prize: one reader would win the 16 works shortlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand national book awards.

Over 80 readers entered; their votes were counted, and the 20 most popular books feature below. The book which attracted the most votes was The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox. As such, we asked Elizabeth to draw a name from a hat – in the event, her own sunhat – for our prize.

The winner is Cushla Dillon of New Windsor, Auckland. Congratulations, Cushla! She will receive the entire 2018 Ockham shortlist of 16 books, some of them very good.

Our thanks to everyone who entered. The results were fascinating. One thing became immediately apparent as we collated their nominations for the 20 best award-winning books published in New Zealand since 1968: the dominance of fiction.

The Big Moment part I

Only two votes separated The Vintner’s Luck, Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, and Keri Hulme’s Booker-winning classic, the bone people. Four other novels featured in the top 10. Fiction fell away a little bit after that. Two of Janet Frame’s autobiographies made expected appearances, and there was favour, too, for Michael King’s biography of the great genius of New Zealand letters. King was the only other author to have two books in the top 20. His Penguin History is part of the furniture of New Zealand cultural life. King’s two nominations in the top 20 also serve as yet another reminder of his premature and profound loss to New Zealand letters. Who, now, has the credibility and authority to write another Penguin History?

We also asked a panel of 50 experts to make their selection. Their votes will be revealed in due course. What we can say is that the experts chose a lot of non-fiction – serious works, important documents, profound histories, that sort of thing. It differs fairly wildly from the readers’ choices. For now, The People have spoken; and this is their speech, below.

The Big Moment part II

1 The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, 1999)

Over 60,000 sales in New Zealand alone can’t be wrong. It got made into a terrible movie but no one remembers that; readers evidently remembered very well the intoxicating pleasures of Knox’s novel.

2 Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, 2007)

The master at work. When this guy tells a story, he tells it really, really well, with layers of meaning, and an inventiveness that is unrivalled in New Zealand letters.

3 the bone people by Keri Hulme (Spiral, 1984)

Spiral! Whatever happened to feminist publishing collectives? And whatever happened to Keri Hulme? We wish her all the best; her Booker-winning novel remains a powerful, resonant classic.

4 Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King (Penguin, 2004)

The great historian was the right man at exactly the right time to write a beautifully arranged, sometimes profound and even occasionally really funny 21st century history of two peoples.

5 Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff (Tandem, 1991)

No one ever wrote a novel like that in New Zealand before and no one ever will again. It was a Last Exit to Brooklyn in Rotorua, a swirling, operatic masterpiece, delivering a key component of New Zealand life that rarely features in our writing: violence.

6 Plumb by Maurice Gee (Oxford University Press, 1979)

The Great New Zealand Novel, or as close as dammit to it.

7 The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Victoria University Press, 2014)

It won the Booker.

The Big Moment part III

8 An Angel at My Table: An Autobiography, Volume II by Janet Frame (Hutchinson, 1984)

The standard line in New Zealand literature is that two authors were indisputably possessed of genius: Katherine Mansfield, and Janet Frame. Here be proof of the latter.

9 The 10pm Question by Kate De Goldi (Longacre Press, 2009)

Likely the sheer most enjoyable New Zealand novel of modern times.

10 Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press, 2017)

In which a poet turned to prose, and out-wrote everybody with a collection of memoirs and meditations.

11 To the Is-Land by Janet Frame (Hutchinson, 1983)

More proof of her aforementioned genius.

12 Potiki by Patricia Grace (Penguin, 1987)

A coastal community is threatened by developers: a metaphor for what goes on.

The Big Moment part IV: Fergus and Elizabeth gaze upon the name of Cushla Dillon.

13 Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame by Michael King (Viking, 2001)

The biography of her aforementioned genius.

14 Smith’s Dream by C. K. Stead (Longman Paul, 1972)

Smith’s Dream! From 1972! It’s so old that it was Stead’s debut novel. It shared a vision of New Zealand as a police state; if it was kind of artless, it was also jolly exciting, and the movie invented Sam Neill.

15 Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird (Victoria University Press, 2017)

Keats is dead so fuck me from behind

Slowly and with carnal purpose

Some black midwinter afternoon…

16 Bread and Roses by Sonja Davies (Fraser Books, 1985)

Helen Clark, and Dames Silvia Cartwright and Margaret Wilson all attended Davies’s funeral in 2005. From the Herald‘s report: “Ms Davies’ coffin was carried into the hall by female friends while a choir sang Bread and Roses, a union song written during a woollen mills strike in the United States in 1912. It was also the name of her autobiography.”

17 Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918–1964 by Chris Bourke (Auckland University Press, 2011)

This is the book Bourke was always destined to write; a fascinatingly detailed cultural study of forgotten music, brought back to shimmering life.

18 Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World by Steve Braunias (Awa Press, 2013)

Thanks readers!

19 Oracles and Miracles by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (Penguin, 1988)

“Peeling paint, flaking iron, cracked linoleum, dusty yards, lean-tos, and asphalts, dunnies and textile mills”: a memorable vision of Christchurch, by a singular writer.

20 The Unfortunate Experiment by Sandra Coney (Penguin, 1989)

The book of the scandal.


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