4 Mar 2020

New Zealand Book Awards announced, two major writers miss out

11:28 am on 4 March 2020

A shortlist of finalists has been announced for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in what judges have described as a "cheeringly excellent year for New Zealand fiction".

Ockham NZ Book Awards

Some of the finalists in the Ockham NZ Book Awards, clockwise from top left: Owen Marshall, Becky Manawatu, David Vann, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai, Stephen Toussaint, Sarah Myles, Carl Shuker, Shayne Carter and Helen Rickerby. Photo: Supplied / Ockham New Zealand Book Awards

The 16 finalists - four of which will vie for the $55,000 fiction award - were narrowed down from 170 entries and a longlist of 40 titles across fiction, poetry, illustrated non-fiction and general non-fiction.

The 2020 finalists for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction are: Auē by Becky Manawatu, Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall, A Mistake by Carl Shuker and Halibut on the Moon by David Vann.

Mark Broatch, spokesperson for the fiction judges, said the novels and short story collections comprised a great range, depth and surprise.

"Forced to winnow a great longlist to four, the judges found that these books stood above the others - for their storytelling brio, their exploration of salient ideas, and their dedication to language as a salve and seasoning for the mind, the marrow, the spirit."

In some surprises, Elizabeth Knox's novel The Absolute Book did not make the shortlist and Vincent O'Malley's New Zealand Wars | Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa is missing from the final four in the general non-fiction list.

"Some people are shocked or surprised to see that Elizabeth Knox, one of our great writers, one of our most revered writers, is not on our fiction list," NZ Book Awards Trust spokesperson Paula Morris said.

"That's the way it goes."

The general non-fiction category was always massive but it was a surprise to her that Vincent O'Malley's landmark history book did not make the shortlist, Morris said.

"The quality of books on the shortlists is exceptional. We anticipate that the decisions of the judges in each category will spark passionate debate."

Knox's publisher and husband Fergus Barrowman said he had no idea why the author wasn't on the list." I can't read the judges minds. I was surprised and disappointed because I think it's a really good book and I would love to have seen it get the recognition of being on the shortlist."

Barrowman said 6000 copies of The Absolute Book had been sold and a reprint was on the way.

Poetry category convenor Kiri Piahana-Wong said the four shortlisted poets write in different styles, but all pay close attention to craft, form and tone, and all have produced books with lasting impact.

Odessa Owens from the Illustrated non-fiction judging panel, said these titles were landmark publications that address significant cultural milestones.

"These brilliantly crafted publications also demonstrate the growing confidence of writers, designers and publishers to innovate with design and world-class production values."

The winners of the poetry and non-fiction categories will each receive a $10,000 prize.

Winners will be announced at a ceremony on Tuesday, 12 May as a marquee event during the 2020 Auckland Writers Festival.

The full list of finalists

Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction:

  • Auē by Becky Manawatu
  • Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall
  • A Mistake by Carl Shuker
  • Halibut on the Moon by David Vann.

Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry:

  • Moth Hour, Anne Kennedy
  • How to Live, Helen Rickerby
  • Lay Studies, Steven Toussaint
  • How I Get Ready, Ashleigh Young.

Illustrated non-fiction:

  • 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
  • Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance, edited by Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams, Puawai Cairns
  • We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa, Chris McDowall and Tim Denee
  • McCahon Country, Justin Paton.

General non-fiction:

  • Dead People I Have Known, Shayne Carter
  • Shirley Smith: An Examined Life, Sarah Gaitanos
  • Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women's Poetry, Paula Green
  • Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus, Sarah Myles.