17 May 2023

Read all about it: A beginner’s guide to the 2023 Ockham Book Awards

2:06 pm on 17 May 2023

The 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are announced tonight in Auckland. These awards – New Zealand publishing’s Oscars – celebrate the best local fiction, non-fiction and poetry published in the previous year. Winning authors receive a sizeable cash prize, as well as the envy of their peers and the gratitude of their publishers.

Not read the finalists yet? Here’s a cheat sheet to help you sound like you have.

Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction

Better the Blood by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)

Michael Bennett

Photo: Supplied / Amber Fonua

What’s the story? Māori Detective Senior Sergeant Hanna Westerman, a single mum who has a high-pressure job in Auckland’s CIB, has a lot on her plate. When she’s led to a crime scene by a mysterious video and discovers a man hanging in a hidden room, she realises the killer is sending her a message. When more murders follow, Hana realises that her heritage and past are the keys to finding the perpetrator.

What did the reviews say? “A good, solid, entertaining crime thriller,” said Catherine Robertson on RNZ. “Really well-plotted, it’s got a lot of twists, great characters, I hope Michael writes a whole lot more books like this.”

“A moving, timely and powerful thriller that brings to life a crime story deeply embedded in our history,” said Greg Fleming on Kete Books. “That he [Bennett] is able to wrap such meaty issues up in a gripping page-turner is a remarkable feat for a debut novelist.”

Listen to Michael interviewed by Kathryn Ryan here or listen to Catherine Robertson’s review here.

Kāwai: For Such a Time as This by Monty Soutar (Bateman Books)

Dr Monty Soutar

Dr Monty Soutar Photo: Scottie Productions

What’s the story? Noted historian Monty Soutar has drawn on his own ancestral line for this epic historical adventure (the first of three books spanning a 300-year period). When a young Māori man returns to his family marae on the east coast of the North Island to learn about his tipuna, his elderly grand-uncle tells him about his legendary warrior ancestor Kaitanga.

What did the reviews say? “Matua Monty draws on his expertise as a historian to immerse the reader in a pre-colonial Aotearoa that teems with texture, life, and details that will delight, shock, and surprise even readers familiar with the period,” wrote Wiremu Kane for Newsroom.  

Listen to Monty interviewed by Kathryn Ryan here or listen to Catherine Robertson’s review here.

Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press)

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Photo: Cuba Press

What’s the story? Hawke’s Bay writer Cristina Sanders re-imagines what happened to 15 hardy folk who survived the wreck of the General Grant (a gold-laden ship that met its end en route from Melbourne to London in 1866), then spent 18 months on sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands

What did the reviews say?: “A page turner from start to finish with some rather intense scenes that remain with the reader long after finishing the novel. There are few better modern shipwreck stories around,” wrote Chris Reed for NZ Booklovers.

Listen to Cristina’s interview with Kathryn Ryan here or listen to Catherine Robertson’s review here.

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

What’s the story? The 2017 Ockham fiction prize winner Catherine Chidgey details the inner workings of a deteriorating marriage on an isolated high country farm from the perspective of Tama the magpie. Tama’s incredible ability to mimic humans leads her to become a social media star, upending the farmers’ lives. Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, etc.

Catherine Chidgey author of The Axeman's Carnival

Catherine Chidgey author of The Axeman's Carnival Photo: Helen Mayall /

What did the reviews say?The Axeman’s Carnival occurs in rural New Zealand, with a storytelling elegance that makes it both very Kiwi and universal. It is a dazzling and dizzying kaleidoscope portrayal of humanity and the natural world. There is beauty and brutality, love and violence, hilarity and disaster,” wrote Hannah Tunnicliffe on Kete Books

Listen to Catherine’s interview with Kathryn Ryan here or to David Hill’s review here.

Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry

Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised by Alice Te Punga Somerville (Auckland University Press)

Alice Te Punga Somerville

Photo: supplied

What’s the story? Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Āti Awa, Taranaki) draws on her own experiences of racism in New Zealand, including within academia, for her first collection of poems. Inspired by a friend’s experience of being advised to italicise the ‘foreign’ words in her poems, Somerville deliberately italicises English words in this portrayal of colonialism’s role in Aotearoa.

What did the reviews say?Always Italicise is a masterclass on explaining feelings of isolation and colonisation through the means of poetic form,” wrote Chris Reed for NZ Booklovers.

“Overall, Somerville’s writing is poignant, beautiful and rich with imagery. Māori phrasing and language is woven throughout with skill and control to really bring out the magic that forms our bicultural history and foundation.” 

People Person by Joanna Cho (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Joanna Cho

Joanna Cho Photo: CREDIT Campbell Stonehouse

What’s the story? Joanna Cho’s debut poetry collection takes inspiration from her experience growing up in contemporary New Zealand, through both magical imagery and her take on mundane life. South Korean-born, Wellington-based Cho, completed her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2020 and received the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry.

What did the reviews say? “A relatable and engaging collection, because you never know what’s gonna be around the corner,” said poet laureate Chris Tse on RNZ.

People Person is a triumph,” wrote Paula Green at Poetry Shelf. “It is humorous and witty and revealing. It is confessional and withholding, gifting and gifted. Each time you read from cover to cover, you will discover new reading tracks, fresh possibilities for what we want and need from poetry.”

Listen to Lynn Freeman’s interview with Joanna here.

Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea (Taraheke | Bush Lawyer)

Anahera Maire Gildea

Photo: Supplied

What’s the story? This is the first poetry collection by Anahera Maire Gildea (Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga), who has been publishing poetry, short stories, essays and reviews for nearly two decades.  

What did the reviews say?Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea is an ode to those that fought before us. It is fighting talk but also the quiet that follows, tired of fighting,” wrote Arihia Latham for Landfall

We’re All Made of Lightning by Khadro Mohamed (We Are Babies Press, Tender Press)

What’s the story? Khadro Mohamed’s debut collection explores how her sense of self as a young Muslim women is impacted by her surroundings, homelands, whakapapa, language, culture and everyday interactions.

Khadro Mohamed

Khadro Mohamed Photo: supplied

What did the reviewers say? “To pick up this astonishing book of vulnerability and strength, of journey and vision, is to take up Khadro’s invitation and step into her home, into her poems, to share her tea and listen to her songs, her stories, her hope and her comfort,” wrote Paula Green at Poetry Shelf.

Listen to Khadro’s interview with Jesse Mulligan on RNZ here.

Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction

Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press)

Cover of Jumping Sundays book by Nick Bollinger

Photo: Supplied

What’s the story? Award-winning writer and broadcaster Nick Bollinger tells the story of beards and bombs, freaks and firebrands, self-destruction and self-realisation, during a turbulent period in New Zealand’s history and culture.

What did the reviews say? “Bollinger, recently awarded the Lilburn Research Fellowship for 2023, charts the rise of the counterculture, often pivoting off international movements, from political antecedents in the 50s through a decade where Scientologists, the Maharishi and Hare Krishna chanters occupied the same space as anti-war protesters, prime minister Robert Muldoon and James K. Baxter,” wrote Graham Reid.

Listen to Cynthia Morahan review Jumping Sundays on Nine to Noon

Robin White: Something is Happening Here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga (Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)

Cover of 'Something Is Happening Here'


What’s the story? This book accompanies Robin White: Te Whanaketanga | Something is Happening Her, a major retrospective exhibition featuring more than 70 works from across Robin White’s 50-year career. It celebrates White’s place as one of New Zealand’s most important artists.

What did the reviews say? “Superbly designed and produced but it’s also well-conceived and constructed, so despite dealing with such a complex intertwining of life and art, it works perfectly,” said Anne Else on RNZ. “The whole thing is immensely readable and accessible, but it does that without losing any of breadth and depth that her work requires when you discuss it.”

Listen to Anne Else’s review on RNZ here.

Secrets of the Sea: The Story of New Zealand’s Native Sea Creatures by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins)

What’s the story? Secrets of the Sea is a fascinating introduction to New Zealand's fish and shellfish, weaving together history, biology and culture to reveal how these unique and intriguing creatures have shaped our lives. Robert Vennell celebrates the magic and mystery of the world beneath the waves.

Secret of the Seas author, Robert Vennell

Secret of the Seas author, Robert Vennell Photo: Mathew Cattin

What did the reviews say? "Secrets of the Sea: The Story of New Zealand's Native Sea Creatures is a wonderful mix of historical records, including amusing anecdotes and amazing accounts, up-to-date scientific research, Māori lore and mātauranga - all cleverly blended together in Vennell's extremely readable style," said Alex Eagles for Kete Books.

Listen to Robert Vennell’s interview with Jesse Mulligan on RNZ here.

Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan (Bridget Williams Books)

Dr Rachel Buchanan wrote the book Ko Taranaki te Maunga, published by BWB Books.

Dr Rachel Buchanan wrote the book Ko Taranaki te Maunga, published by BWB Books. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

What’s the story? Author Rachel Buchanan examines how five interconnected carved panels, Te Motunui Epa, have journeyed across the world and changed practices, understanding and international law on the protection and repatriation of stolen cultural treasures.

What did the reviews say? "Judge this book by its lovely cover. In her account of a lost and retrieved treasure, Buchanan has herself created a taonga," wrote Jonathan Barrett in The Conversation.

Read about Motunui Epa’s journey across the globe here

General Non-Fiction Award

A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna by Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor (Auckland University Press)

Melinda Webber & Te Kapua O'Connor

Photo: Melinda Webber & Te Kapua O'Connor

What’s the story? Peacemakers, strategists, explorers and entrepreneurs, the tūpuna of the North are an inspiration to the people of Te Tai Tokerau. Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor introduce a new generation to 24 of those tūpuna, including Nukutawhiti, Hineāmaru, Hongi Hika and Te Ruki Kawiti. 

What did the reviews say? Listen to Paul Diamond’s review on RNZ here.

Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press)

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Photo: Supplied/ Massey University Press

What’s the story? Paul Diamond tells the tale of Whanganui mayor Charles Mackay, spectacularly fell from grace in 1920 after he shot a young gay poet who he thought was blackmailing him. Diamond examines the scandal and exposes the grim truth of how society conspired to control and punish homosexual men at the time.

What did the reviews say?With Downfall, Diamond continues his already established gift for shining a spotlight on compelling but often little-known characters from our past,” wrote Victor Rodger in The Spinoff.

Listen to Kim Hill’s RNZ interview with Paul Diamond here. Listen to Kiran Dass’ review here.

Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, Penguin Random House)

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Photo: Supplied

What’s the story? Writer and broadcaster Noelle McCarthy turns an unflinching eye on her Cork upbringing and her complex relationship with her alcoholic mother, Carol, in this debut memoir. Noelle escapes to New Zealand, but her demons – especially her own drinking – come too.

What did the reviews say?You’d never wish material this good for a memoir on anyone. It’s complex, thrilling and raw. It even has a perfect beginning, middle and end. It’s the opposite of comfort reading,” wrote Rachael King for Newsroom. 

Listen to Kim Hill’s interview with Noelle here. Watch Joan Mackenzie’s review here

The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi by Ned Fletcher (Bridget Williams Books)

Ned Fletcher

Ned Fletcher Photo: Supplied

What’s the story? Historian and lawyer Ned Fletcher makes the argument that Māori and English texts of the Treaty reconcile in this painstakingly researched book. Fletcher, who began this study for a PhD thesis, concludes those who framed the English text intended Māori to have continuing rights to self-government (rangatiratanga) and ownership of their lands, but that this understanding was lost in a climate of hostility towards indigenous peoples and plural systems of government.

What did the reviews say? Fletcher’s prize piece… is an immense contribution to both history and the law,” wrote Morgan Godfery in The Spinoff.

“There are a few things missing for me in it, but it’s still a wonderful book and it’s going to greatly increase our understanding of the Treaty,” said Martin Fisher on RNZ.

Listen to Kim Hill’s interview with Ned Fletcher on RNZ here.

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