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Wake up! WAKE UP! The longlist, the longlist, the longlist is here! Image by Hagen Hopkins/Getty.
Wake up! WAKE UP! The longlist, the longlist, the longlist is here! Image by Hagen Hopkins/Getty.

BooksJanuary 30, 2020

Breaking news: the Ockhams 2020 finalists, a chorus of triumph and travesty

Wake up! WAKE UP! The longlist, the longlist, the longlist is here! Image by Hagen Hopkins/Getty.
Wake up! WAKE UP! The longlist, the longlist, the longlist is here! Image by Hagen Hopkins/Getty.

At 5am this morning, like a dawn chorus, the embargo lifted on the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards longlist. Here are the 40 books that made it, followed by some frank thoughts from our books editor, Catherine Woulfe.


The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press)

Lonely Asian Woman by Sharon Lam (Lawrence & Gibson)

Necessary Secrets by Greg McGee (Upstart Press)

Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press)

Moonlight Sonata by Eileen Merriman (Black Swan, Penguin Random House)

Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall (Vintage, Penguin Random House)

Attraction by Ruby Porter (Text Publishing)

A Mistake by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press)

Loving Sylvie by Elizabeth Smither (Allen & Unwin)

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Text Publishing)


Craven by Jane Arthur (Victoria University Press)

Listening In by Lynley Edmeades (Otago University Press)

Back Before You Know by Murray Edmond (Compound Press)

Under Glass by Gregory Kan (Auckland University Press)

Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press)

Ransack by Essa-May Ranapiri (Victoria University Press)

How to Live by Helen Rickerby (Auckland University Press)

Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint (Victoria University Press)

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean by Sugar Magnolia Wilson (Auckland University Press)

How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press)


Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai, Damian Skinner (Te Papa Press)

Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance edited by Stephanie Gordon, Matariki Williams, Puawai Cairns (Te Papa Press)

Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys edited by Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler (Auckland University Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)

Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy by Paul Horan and Philip Matthews (Auckland University Press)

The New Photography: New Zealand’s First-generation Contemporary Photographers edited by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press)

We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa by Chris McDowall and Tim Denee (Massey University Press)

Louise Henderson: From Life edited by Felicity Milburn, Lara Strongman, Julia Waite (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū)

McCahon Country by Justin Paton (Penguin Random House)

Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction, Vol. 1 1919-1959 by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press)

The Meaning of Trees: The History and Use of New Zealand’s Native Plants by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins)


Women Mean Business: Colonial Businesswomen in New Zealand by Catherine Bishop (Otago University Press)

Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press)

Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920 by Jared Davidson (Otago University Press)

Shirley Smith: An Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press)

Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry by Paula Green (Massey University Press)

Finding Frances Hodgkins by Mary Kisler (Massey University Press)

Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus by Sarah Myles (Allen & Unwin)

The New Zealand Wars | Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa by Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books)

Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica by Rebecca Priestley (Victoria University Press)

Whale Oil: One Man’s Fight to Save His Reputation, then His Life by Margie Thomson (Potton & Burton)

Catherine Woulfe writes …

First triumph: a delighted congratulations to our poetry editor Ashleigh Young, who has failed comprehensively at her stated intent with How I Get Ready which was “try to pretend it’s not happening”.

She should win, obviously.

First travesty: Naomi Arnold dipped out for Southern Nights!

But on we roll to the big double-double: Linda Burgess and Rose Lu have both missed out on a spot.

Linda Burgess wrote Someone’s Wife, a memoir of sorts, and clearly one of the best books of 2019. Rose Lu wrote All Who Live on Islands, a memoir of sorts, and clearly one of the best books of 2019. Both should have breezed onto the general non-fiction list and then Linda at least should have breezed onto the shortlist and then had a go at smashing Shayne Carter. Instead … yeah, nah.

How does a person, a books person, but also any person, read these two magnificent books – full of cleverness and nuance and wells of love and grief and glinting observation – and then think “yeah, nah”?

Related: how does a books person, but also any person, read Towards the Mountain, which beat both of them to a spot, and think “fully, yeah”? Sarah Myles has written a book about Erebus that is fine as far as it goes. But where it goes should not be the Ockhams longlist.

Not that this will help either Burgess or Lu, but here’s an idea for next year that we will champion every which way: launch a fifth category, for creative non-fiction, so that books like theirs (and like Gregory O’Brien’s beautiful Oceanic Sketchbook, also a memoir, also overlooked) aren’t judged alongside books that are basically hugely impressive research projects poured onto paper, like Women Mean Business or Ngā Pakanga. Great books, both, but they’re not trying to do what Linda and Rose did, and vice versa.

Right now, the only thing separating the two non-fiction categories is that one has pictures. When another thing that should set books apart, surely, is the writing. Is the author boiling down knowledge for the page, or are they using fact as a hook, a doorway to story? Is there an ease to it, a beautiful rhythm, an expertise?

Creative non-fiction is shaking up the way writing is taught and published and it’s time to shake up the way prizes are doled out, too. Precedent: look at how online journalism has infiltrated the media awards. (Except for the love of god don’t let the Ockhams get as cluttered as the media awards).

The fiction list makes way more sense. I’m stoked to see Becky Manawatu on there for Auē, a book I have been yelling about for months, and Ruby Porter for Attraction, which landed just as I took over this section and had a baby, so I didn’t get to write more than a lick of a review, which I just dug up:

Porter has pulled together a miscellanea, a museum exhibit, preserving this place and this moment, and forcing us to look at how we got here. 

Attraction is a road-trip story and a story about layers and sediments and travesties and how they are concreted over. About memories. “All this memory, washing over us and passing through,” she writes. And, over and over: “Every time you remember something you’re only remembering the last time you thought of it.”

Porter is mercurial, wise, funny. She contains multitudes. In the space of one page she skips from the sealed section of Cosmopolitan to the Foreshore and Seabed Bill. From Owls Do Cry to NOS … The imagery! “Wairoa is a town of butter, bricks and animal hides”. Light bulbs “look like yolks suspended in their pale glow”. On Napier: “the palms and the arches, the domes and stripes and grids of windows, roses and raupo and grapevines.”

She uses strong, symbolic dashes of blood; she leaves a metal aftertaste.

I’m utterly unsurprised to also see Carl Shuker and Elizabeth Knox – who should win, because The Absolute Book is a masterwork and a grand green dream, the biggest triumph on this list, a book for our times. For our weary, scared old noggins.

I’m sad that The Burning River, Lawrence Patchett’s richly-textured take on a post-apocalyptic Aotearoa, didn’t make it, but not outraged, because I can’t see what should be booted off to make room.

Finally: it’s cool that the judges went for Eileen Merriman’s Moonlight Sonata. Very fast-paced, sexy, set at a beach, stuffed with teenagers and bonfires and midnight swims. The sort of thing that would often be called chick lit and thoughtlessly culled. It won’t win but still, cool.

Keep going!