2 Feb 2024

What the critics have to say about the 2024 Ockhams long list

10:01 am on 5 February 2024

Have you seen the 2024 Ockhams Books Awards longlist? It’s a long longlist – a great big juicy list full of excellent Aotearoa New Zealand writing – though readers would be forgiven for feeling daunted by the sheer number of titles.

To help navigate your way through, here’s what the experts have to say about longlisted titles in the fiction and poetry awards categories. For general non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction, take a look here.

View the full longlist of titles across all categories here.

Fiction — Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction

Ockham Book awards long list fiction collage

Photo: Kete Books

A Better Place by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing)

Speaking to Kathryn Ryan on RNZ in September, Kim Pittar noted she’d be surprised if A Better Place didn’t make various awards lists. A ‘great read’ — and an "edgy" and "visceral" novel about the war experiences of twin brothers.

Audition by Pip Adam (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Part sci-fi, part social realism. Three giants are contained in the spaceship Audition, hurtling towards the event horizon. A book that explores incarceration and oppression but also, writes Ruth Spencer, "offers a glimpse of redemption, singing a different, beautiful alternative to that inhumanity.’ 

Backwaters by Emma Ling Sidnam (Text Publishing)

Laura, a 4th generation Chinese New Zealander, navigates the tides of trying to find herself in her twenties and begins to uncover the life stories of her parents, grandparents and great great grandfather who emigrated from China as a market gardener. "Warm and satisfying … a book you can safely take on holiday with you," writes Renee Liang.

composite of the Anna Smaill and the cover of her book "Bird Life"

Photo: Ebony Lamb

Bird Life by Anna Smaill (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

The Chimes’ author Anna Smaill’s immersive third book is set in Tokyo and follows New Zealander Dinah as she grieves her dead twin and Yasuko a solo mother with powers and the ability to talk to animals. "In the end," writes Ruth Spencer, readers are "destabilised  … unable to be sure what is delusion and what is magic."

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

A constant on the Aotearoa Bestseller List, this is the ‘wrenchingly effective, darkly funny and flawlessly crafted single-sitting thriller,’ written by 2013 Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton.

Emily Perkins

Photo: Ebony Lamb/Supplied

Lioness by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury Publishing)

There’s a "Succession-like sensibility" about author Emily Perkins’ Thorne family writes Josie Shapiro. "An ominous novel, about femininity, wealth, inequality, duplicity, pretence, seduction and family."

Pet by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

As Dionne Christian writes, "Catherine Chidgey has been causing confusion". The Catholic school-set thriller was released hot on the heels of Chidgey’s win for her 2022 novel The Axeman’s Carnival at the Ockhams in 2023 – both books have been Aotearoa Bestsellers without reprieve ever since.

Ruin and Other Stories by Emma Hislop (Kāi Tahu) (Te Herenga Waka University Press)*

This is Emma Hislop’s debut collection of short fiction. Reviewer Jane Lowe writes "Simmering with an undercurrent of violence, the 13 stories shift between urban London and various landscapes within Aotearoa astutely capturing the uncomfortable truths that lie at the heart of how ordinary people treat each other".

Photo: Te Herenga Waka University Press

Signs of Life by Amy Head (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Over on the Aotearoa New Zealand Review of Books Elizabeth Engledow writes that these 12 linked stories set in post-quake Christchurch "form stepping stones, apparently disjointed but leading somewhere – in this case, to a profound insight into a city in the aftermath of disaster".

Turncoat by Tīhema Baker (Raukawa te Au ki te Tonga, Ātiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Toa Rangatira) (Lawrence & Gibson)

Writing on The Spinoff, Shanti Mathias says that Tīhema Baker’s "satire about what it’s like for Māori to work within a system that constantly breaches Te Tiriti o Waitangi … feels both gloriously specific and completely hilarious". 

Poetry — Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry

Ockham Book awards long list collage - poetry

Photo: Kete Books

At the Point of Seeing by Megan Kitching (Otago University Press)

Long fascinated by the natural world, Megan Kitching has written a collection which urges readers to slow-down and give space to the living, breathing, moving environment that surrounds us. She spoke with Kete about writing the collection, her fascination with nature and her research work on the influence of the natural sciences on 18th century poetry.

The cover of Tusiata Avia's latest poetry collection, Big Fat Brown Bitch.

Photo: Te Herenga Waka University Press

Big Fat Brown Bitch by Tusiata Avia (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Tusiata Avia returns with a brilliant and eviscerating collection of poems of defiance, confrontation, consolation, satire, sorrow and fury. Here's ‘Don’t punish the wealthy’ extracted from Big Fat Brown Bitch.

Calamities! by Jane Arthur (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Jane Arthur wants to "get morbid" in Calamities. Reviewer Erica Stretton says "big topics are distilled right down to tiny, in the moment, very human observations". And the collection "pulses with both humour and an impatient fatigue".

Chinese Fish by Grace Yee (Giramondo Publishing)

On Arts Hub, Elizabeth Walton writes that Chinese Fish is "a reflection on the long white fog of colonial prejudice". Grace Yee’s touch, writes Walton, is ‘always light, despite presenting the brutal reality of the family’s lived experience.’

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 Claudia Jardine Photo: Supplied

Biter by Claudia Jardine (Auckland University Press)

Erica Stretton writes: "Claudia Jardine’s first poetry collection, Biter is as ferocious and sexual as the title suggests … Love permeates the volume, whether frank or fleshy, familial or tender."

Root Leaf Flower Fruit by Bill Nelson (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Bill Nelson’s verse novel, writes Vaughan Rapatahana, is skilful. A "speedy stream of consciousness" sweeps "not only the two main characters – grandmother and her grandson – but also the reader, ever onwards". Rapatahana notes Tina Makereti has written that the book sets out "a sort of Pākehā whakapapa, or a yearning for it, and a commentary on the ways in which Pākehā reach for connection to place and people".  

C K Stead

 Writer C. K. Stead Photo: supplied

Say I Do This: Poems 2018–2022 by C. K. Stead (Auckland University Press)

C.K. Stead reflects on home, on away and friends living and dead. Harry Ricketts writes this collection is "a reminder that during his long and fruitful poetic career, he has always been a civic poet, and one of our most lucid and articulate". Ricketts asks whether the book enlarges the sense of what poetry can be and/or encourages readers to write themselves. He comes to the conclusion "Say I Do This scores a yes on both counts".

Talia by Isla Huia (Te Āti Haunui a-Pāpārangi, Uenuku) (Dead Bird Books)

Speaking with The Māori Literature Trust, Isla Huia says that her debut poetry collection was written in the wake of the death of a dear friend, for whom the book is named. Talia, she says, is "about indigeneity, wairua and looking for the light amongst it all".

The Artist

The Artist by Ruby Solly Photo: Supplied

The Artist by Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Ruby Solly brings to life the histories of our great Southern iwi through the whakapapa of The Artist’s characters and the rich world they and their ancestors call their tūrakawaewae. Writing on the Aotearoa New Zealand Review of Books Robert Sullivan says that "for readers with an interest in innovative poetry – in New Zealand literature, indigenous literature, Māori literature – this book is significant and needed". Read Robert Sullivan’s review translated into te reo Māori here.

When I Reach for Your Pulse by Rushi Vyas (Otago University Press)

Siobhan Harvey writes that reading When I Reach for Your Pulse "gives me the faith to believe I’m not alone. Originally from the United States, Vyas’ composes a work in which an instance of traumatic personal loss acts as a starting point to poetically examine and dismantle the private and public impacts of British colonialism, American imperialism, patriarchy and caste hierarchies. The result is a politically charged meditation upon the world we live in and the world we might bequeath to those who come after us."

This review was originally published on Kete Books and is reproduced here with kind permission. 

Kete Books logo

Photo: Kete Books

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