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08 July 2024

Life after Ockhams: reading recommendations

As convenor of judges for the 2024 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, she was immersed in the best of NZ fiction for the best part of a year. But what to read next when you’ve exhausted the short list? CEO Juliet Blyth explores some post-Ockhams inspiration.

Finishing a novel that has entertained and challenged, made you look inward and outward, and that you’ve taken to your heart can leave one feeling bereft—and is there anything worse than casting around in no-man’s land searching for your next great read?

Well, help is at hand. My fellow judges (Anthony Lapwood, Kiran Dass) and I have some suggestions that we hope will fill that Ockham-sized hole in your reading life.

First, we urge you to return to the longlist: there are 10 excellent titles on that list that deserve your attention, or six if you’ve read the shortlist! All of the shortlisted writers also have rich backlists which are well worth exploring.

If you loved A Better Place by Stephen Daisley, consider:

  • Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, Chris Brickell (non-fiction, with a section on WW2)
  • Anything by American writer Cormac McCarthy - for his spare lyricism and brutality – but especially The Road and his “Border Trilogy” beginning with All the Pretty Horses.
  • Richard Flanagan is an Australian writer and his novel Narrow Road to the Deep North the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a love affair with his uncle's wife — set in part in a Japanese POW camp in 1943 won the 2014 Booker Prize.
  • Tu by Patricia Grace is an intimate portrayal of World War II told through the eyes of a young soldier in the Māori Battalion who follows his two older brothers to battle and is the only one who returns.

If you loved Audition by Pip Adam, consider:

  • Monsters in the Garden: an Anthology of Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Elizabeth Knox and David Larsen.
  • Na Viro by Gina Cole – a science fiction novel set in the distant future and featuring Pacific culture, the author calls it ‘Pasifikafuturism’, which engages in “anti-colonial mindscapes”.
  • Much lauded American writer Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a 1974 utopian science fiction novel, one of her seven Hainish Cycle novels.
  • And for a little non-fiction companion reading to Audition, Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the making of New Zealand by Jared Davidson (BWB) explains, for the first time, the making of New Zealand and its Pacific empire through the prism of prison labour.

If you loved Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton, consider:

  • North Woods by Daniel Mason, a sweeping novel about a single house in the woods of New England, told through the lives of those who inhabit it across the centuries – a daring, moving tale of memory and fate.
  • The rave reviews are flooding in for this debut novel, also blurbed by Eleanor: The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley is a time travel romance, a spy thriller, a workplace comedy, and an ingenious exploration of the nature of power and the potential for love to change it all.
  • She's A Killer is a fellow brilliant Aotearoa New Zealand eco-thriller full of action and chaos, from Pōneke's Kirsten McDougall.
  • Lauren Groff is an American novelist and short story writer who was named one of TIME's most influential people in 2024. Start with her latest novel The Vaster Wilds, a survival novel set in the 1600s and beginning with a voyage across the Atlantic, and work backwards from there.
  • As well as Eleanor Catton, Keri Hulme is the other New Zealand writer to have won the Booker Prize. If you haven’t already read the bone people now might be the time. Published 40 years ago it studies the relationship between a woman living in self-imposed solitude, a damaged young boy, and a violent foster father. Hulme’s extensive use of Māori myth and language, an unusual narrative structure and poetic writing style make for an evocative, atmospheric novel.

If you loved Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction winner Lioness by Emily Perkins, consider:

  • A recommendation from Emily herself is Absolution by American writer Alice McDermott. This is a riveting account of women’s lives on the margins of the Vietnam War. This is an affecting novel about folly and grace, obligation, sacrifice, and the quest for absolution in a broken world.
  • All Fours by American writer Miranda July tells the story of one woman’s quest for a new kind of freedom. Part absurd entertainment, part reinvention of the sexual, romantic, and domestic life of a forty-five-year-old female artist, All Fours transcends expectation while excavating our beliefs about life lived as a woman.
  • Charlotte Wood is an Australian writer and her latest novel Stone Yard Devotional is receiving rave reviews. A woman abandons her city life and marriage to return to the place of her childhood, holing up in a small religious community hidden away on the stark plains of the Monaro. A deeply moving novel about forgiveness, grief, and what it means to be good. When you’ve read this, search out her earlier novel The Natural Way of Things.
  • Set in Sri Lanka, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and London, Amma is a multigenerational novel about how the past lives with us forever and wherever we are by Pākehā Sri Lankan writer Saraid de Silva.

Finally, if the winner of the Hubert Church Prize for Fiction, Ruin by Emma Hislop, put you in the mood for more short stories:

  • Linked through recurring characters and themes, the haunting stories in Kōhine by Colleen Maria Lenihan hurtle us into the streets of Tokyo and small-town New Zealand. The secular city of salarymen, sex workers and schoolgirls is juxtaposed with rongoā healers, lone men, and rural matriarchs of Aotearoa.
  • Beats of the Pa’u by Maria Samuela is a deeply affective collection of stories about first and second generation Cook Island New Zealanders living in 1950s to modern-day New Zealand.
  • Bird Child & Other Stories by Patricia Grace weaves mythology and contemporary Māori life together seamlessly; a spectacular collection by Aotearoa’s foremost short story writer.