Reading the shortlist: Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction – 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards

The New Zealand book world is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, to be held this Wednesday 15 May during the Auckland Writers Festival. These include the Mary and Peter Biggs Prize for Poetry, the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction, and the General Non-Fiction Award.

Below are the finalists for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction - all astoundingly good. 

A Better Place

Explosion after explosion and the ground shaking around them as the dive bombers intensified their attacks on the 22nd Battalion's positions near the Tavronitis bridge. The raining down of dust and stones. The noise deafening.

Above him, more waves of German transport planes were coming over the island. The same Junkers JU 52: three motors and corrugated bodies with swastikas everywhere. ...After that, it seemed the entire sky filled with parachutes. For as far as you could see. Different colours too, who would have thought?

Not for the faint-hearted, Stephen Daisley's A Better Place, his third novel, is a dark story with beautiful imagery and language: a heartfelt portrayal of strength, pain, and love.

Character driven, A Better Place is set during the Second World War. The story moves between the back-blocks of northern Taranaki hill country and the stages where Kiwis fought and died: Crete, El Alamein, Tunisia, Sicily, Trieste and Cassino. It's the story of two brothers: of the grief and brutality of fighting in a war that changed men forever.

In a devastating scene at the battle for Maleme airfield in Crete, Roy Mitchell runs from German paratroopers. Thinking his twin brother Tony is right behind him, Roy finds he's running back to his line alone. Army policy was to separate brothers so that whole families were not wiped out. In a trick of circumstance, the brothers take duty at a listening post (named Whangamōmona) together.

Daisley balances his narrative between tranquillity and horror. Men who were once farmers and cheese-makers have become killers. I grew fond of Daisley's funny and irreverent characters, full of bravery and the most unseemly banter. 

Born in Hastings and now living in Australia, Stephen Daisley writes from experience: he's been in the army, and worked in farming too. His first book, Traitor, (written at the age of 53), won the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction and UTS Glenda Adams Award, while his second novel, Coming Rain, won the 2016 Ockham Award. He's the odd man out here, the only male finalist - and the only one without a Christchurch connection (Pip Adam and Emily Perkins were born here, and Eleanor grew up in Christchurch). The cover image is Wounded at Cassino by none other than Army Artist Peter McIntyre.


Torren had convinced herself they wanted to go. But now as the ship got bigger and bigger, the closer they got, she could see they didn't. They were the unwanted. That was clear to them, perhaps it had been from the start. They took up too much room.

Pip Adam is riding high with some Kiwi greats here and it's very well-deserved.

Pip breaks the mould with her approach to writing. Audition, her fouth novel, begins with over sixty pages of dialogue, which she apologised for to her readers during a slot at WORD Christchurch Festival last year.

Audition's characters, exiled from Earth for becoming threateningly large, are compelled keep talking for multiple reasons: to figure out their situation, to keep themselves from outgrowing their spaceship, and to (fantastically) power the ship. It's also a reflection of their state of mind.

Interestingly, the idea for Audition came to Pip while pregnant. She found there were spaces she could no longer fit into. This led to her musing over the idea of physical power versus political power.There are strong messages in this book: about body image, indoctrination, imprisonment, colonisation and how to be a good guest.

Those who wade through the dialogue, pivotal to the plot, are rewarded with an adventure that stimulates the mind. This compelling story takes the reader into space in its many forms, inner and outer, and fills the mind with colourful imagery. 

Pip Adam's star is rising: her third book, The New Animals (2017), won the Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction, while her first book, Everything We Hoped For (2010), a short story collection, won the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction in 2011.

Read Fee's coverage of Audition.

Birnam Wood

"We are a grassroots community initiative. ...We plant sustainable organic gardens in neglected spaces, and we are committed to the principles of solidarity and mutual aid."

A novel of Shakespearean proportions, Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton's third novel, has done astoundingly well internationally. It's a cleverly plotted tragic satire: the story of a rogue community gardens collective that accepts funding from a surveillance magnate. 

Birnam Wood's plot is a collision of ethos: it's unemotive and entertaining, with vivid characterisation reminiscent of Jane Austen's Emma. Catton's text examines serious issues with irony and tips for successful gardening.

Set in Korowai, a remote village in the South Island, the retreat of a wealthy couple, Birnam Wood is a response to 'an unknowable future': written during Brexit and the rise of Trump. The story raises the issues of an economy that favours the wealthy, Kiwis' relationship with property, the problem of choice vs certainty, our dependence on technology and the threat of surveillance.

Catton's characters illustrate the self-blindness Macbeth was known for, information versus knowledge, 

Also no stranger to awards, screenwriter and novelist Catton has won the Sunday Star-Times short story competition (2007), the Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship (2008). The Rehearsal  won Best First Book Award at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards (2009) and UK Society of Authors Betty Trask Award (2009). The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and the NZ Post Book Award (2014). Birnam Wood was nominated for the prestigious Dublin Literary Award by Auckland and Burges Library, Belgium.

Read Fee's coverage of Birnam Wood.


Lioness is an engaging story of emancipation - from wealth and wifehood, and the expectations, trappings and fair-weather friends that come with it. It's chock-full of engaging and hilarious characters too.

Lead character Therese's life is becoming untethered: her husband Trevor is suddenly charged with fraud, bringing a carefully constructed life of perfect privilege tumbling down. It's a riveting story: Therese gravitates towards a different kind of life - of freedom and wild abandon, with her new friend, neighbour Claire, the polar opposite of her former friends.

Author Emily Perkins focuses a clever eye on human relationships in her writing. It's also a story of consumption - how human lives are consumed by time and circumstance. This is illustrated by Therese's shop that sells

'the fantasy of time to read poetry and handwrite letters to women who scrambled to make it through the day without braining themselves on a desktop paper spike...'

Perkins' observations of humanity are astute and funny. Her use of language is, frankly, gifted. Constructions such as "I wanted to give him (the pilot) my body in gratitude' referring to a perilous landing in Wellington, with its 'one-scoop harbour' and her description of following a gang of bikers, 'I drove on into the air they had parted' made me keen to read more of her work.

Emily Perkins is an author, playwright and book reviewer. Lioness is her fifth novel and sixth work - Not Her Real Name and Other Stories won the Best First Book Award at the Ockhams (1996) and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, while Novel About My Wife won the Montana Book Award and the Believer Book Award (U.S.) in 2009. The Forrests was longlisted for the Women’s Prize (U.K.). She's held the Buddle Findlay Frank Sargeson Fellowship (2006), is an Arts Foundation Laureate and member of the Folio Academy. In 2017 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.

Read Fee's coverage of Emily Perkins at WORD Christchurch.

In case you missed out: here is the longlist celebrating some New Zealand's best writers.

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