The people have spoken, in their hundreds. The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey has been overwhelmingly voted the favourite New Zealand book of 2022 as nominated by ReadingRoom readers. The vote can informally be regarded as the People’s Choice award – ahead of tonight’s Ockham book awards, where The Axeman’s Carnival is competing for the $64,000 fiction prize.

Exactly 402 readers responded to a very special ReadingRoom giveaway contest. They were asked to nominate their favourite NZ book of last year. The prize was all 16 books shortlisted for tonight’s Ockham awards. Congratulations, then, to the winner: JOANNE WILSON of Palmerston North, who nominated The Axeman’s Carnival.

Chidgey’s novel romped home in first place with 151 votes, ahead of Noelle McCarthy’s widely celebrated memoir Grand in second place (81 votes) and, in third place, Monty Soutar’s historical novel Kāwai  (59). Just behind that were the very, very beautiful Robin White: Something Is Happening Here, nominated for the illustrated nonfiction prize tonight (27 votes); the biggest-selling book of 2022, Ruby Tui’s Straight Up (20); and a novel that didn’t even make the longlist despite the plain fact it was better than most everything on it,  Poor People with Money by Dominic Hoey (18).

Another 33 books received nominations, including the unreadable The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi (Ned Fletcher’s 700 pages of legal papers are shortlisted for the nonfiction award tonight); Down from Upland Road by Murdoch Stephens, a wonderfully entertaining novel I thought really ought to have made the fiction shortlist alongside the likewise crazily overlooked Poor People With Money; and a few books I’ve never heard of.

A strange thing is that The Axeman’s Carnival was tied with Grand on 68 votes as late as last Thursday (nominations closed at midnight, Sunday). From there, all weekend,  it was pretty much all one-way traffic headed towards Chidgey’s gothic novel as narrated by Tama the magpie.

Three judges will decide the winners of tonight’s $64,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction. But 151 people have already made up their mind in favour of The Axeman’s Carnival. Contest winner Joanne Wilson wrote, “It was astonishing to me on several counts. The marvellous evocation of a bygone rural NZ reminded me of the rivetting woodchopping at the A & P shows I grew up with when the ratio was more like 90% to 10% rural to urban, plus the utter grit showed by the main character in resolving the unholy mess of domestic awfulness she found herself in, plus the magpie itself. I am associated through my sister (who was her kayak coach) with Sam Bloom, the Aussie paraplegic heroine befriended by a magpie known as Penguin Bloom. There was no need to suspend my disbelief re the magpie in the novel because Sam’s story of finding the will to live through her baby magpie’s devotion and general quirkiness is a true one so I got the magpie.

“That was a really long sentence. It’s the best tale I’ve read in ages and I have been recommending it to everyone who will listen.”

I emailed Joanne last week, and said, “Wow –  your sister was the kayak coach as played by awesome New Zealand actress Rachel House in the beautiful 2021 Australian film Penguin Bloom, based on Sam Bloom’s life?” She replied, “Exactly! My darling sister Gaye Hatfield, so proud of her I never miss a chance to name drop….She and Rachel bonded really quickly as Gaye wears a pounamu we (her three sisters) gave her for her 50th. Could go on about her amazing community service helping disabled people regain a life…. Gaye was the ‘kayak consultant’ on set and some of the real life suggestions she contributed were added to the final movie.”

It’s a great film and even though it has Rachel House and Naomi Watts in it the star is the magpie, as played by eight different birds.

But back to The Axeman’s Carnival. Many readers who nominated the book commented on its authentic  rural setting. Suzanne: “Being from a farming background I was easily transported to the woolshed by her descriptions….Tama echoes the speech of farmers and rural carnival goers, the ‘gut hole’ is where dead lambs and old sheep dogs are thrown.” Gillian was succinct: “Aotearoan agrarian at its best.”

Others commented on its dark subject of domestic violence. Kate wrote, “Domestic violence is a bloody horrible subject, and as someone who’s experienced, it I think Catherine Chidgey did a great job and made it feel real.”

I recognised one or two names. Tusiata Avia: “Most books, even the ones I enjoy, leave my memory not too long after reading. This one didn’t. Loved it.”  Deborah Coddington: “I have not met the author but when I finished reading the novel I messaged her on social media to say how much I had really enjoyed the book, and why. I was rather surprised to receive, in reply, a stern, rather rude, answer, beginning: ‘Miss Coddington. I will have you know that I spent many hours dictating that novel…’ Of course it was signed Tama Magpie and he was complaining that he wrote the novel, and Catherine Chidgey was taking all the credit, the money, swanning off to literary festivals and enjoying all the fame while he was silenced.

“God help the judges if that book does not win an Acorn.”

Many readers very properly talked about birds. I had two favourites. This one, from Cathy: “What gives me great comfort now, is having ‘met’ Tama. When my sister was alive, she would blanch if we saw a lone magpie. Our Scottish mother must have told us the ‘one for sorrow, two for joy, three a letter, four a boy’ with such impact, it stayed with us in a really visceral way. But now, when I see a lone magpie, I say ‘Jen, it’s OK – it might be Tama’. Crazy, but it really makes me feel good.” Annabel sent in the very final entry (Sunday night, 11.47pm): “I read this brilliant novel, hoping against hope that Marnie and Tama would survive the brutality and the beatings. I worried about those axes all the way through. Last page, the evocative sound of the patter of rain on the tin roof, then the two of them finally snuggling down, safe and sound under the blankets, a perfect conclusion.” And then she wrote about the incredible true story of a magpie called Whistler.

But rather a lot of the emails about The Axeman’s Carnival – especially the deluge I received on Saturday – were brief, workmanlike, quite boring. They were also of roughly equal length. It felt like the same person writing the same dull email nearly 100 times. Worse, it felt like AI. Still, numbers are numbers, and the votes swamped the second-most nominated title, Noelle McCarthy’s memoir Grand, which is shortlisted for tonight’s nonfiction prize. Again, it’s in the hands of three Ockhams judges; among the 81 readers who named Grand their favourite book of the year, Penny wrote, “It ran me through the complete range of emotions from horror to sadness to joy to hilarity to complete madness. It was like running across the Southern Alps.”

In third place in the ReadingRoom vote, Kāwai  by Monty Soutar (shortlisted for tonight’s fiction prize) inspired this comment from John: “From the horror of slaves slaughtered for food to the small, expertly observed details of everyday life in a 17th century Māori community this book presented one fascination after another. It would make for an absolute monster of a movie that would make The Piano look like Mary Poppins. If you should ever be in the same room as Taika Waititi, tell him some random guy John from Christchurch reckons he’s the man to do it. He would slay that shit as my 17-year-old boy might say.”

I find it unlikely I will ever be in the same room as Taika Waititi but I agree with random John from Christchurch that Kāwai  would make one hell of a film in the cannibal genre.

The most fascinating nominations were in support of Poor People With Money by Dominic Hoey. Each of its voters had great insights, and sometimes told great stories. This, from Jeneane: “Not being able to read surely makes me some kind of dog-in-a-manger throwing my name in the hat in the hope of winning those 16 shortlisted Ockham contenders. I can read of course – just not for pleasure/leisure/recreation etc. Death of a spouse, post-earthquake read-or-else obligations, chronic fatigue… these life set-backs just keep on coming.  Poor People with Money could have been like any other novel or short story collection I’ve picked up, started, put down unfinished over the past twelve years. But Dominic Hoey got me reading and wanting more with his short, easy to read passages. He might have tailored his writing for dyslexics but it worked for me too.”

Throughout the entries, there was evidence of close reading, heartfelt responses, a personal investment. Ani, nominating Cristina Sanders’s shipwreck saga Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant (shortlisted for tonight’s fiction prize): “I don’t know how she did it but the author made the endless scraping of blubber from seal skins compelling reading, and I looked forward to my insomnia.”  Heather chose Straight Up by Ruby Tui: “I’ve found myself in a tough pace after an out of court settlement from workplace bullying. I’m not sure how such a young woman can be so wise. Reading Straight Up contributed to helping turn my collapsed mental health around. I’ll always be grateful for that.” Vanessa chose Wawata by Hinemoa Elder: “I have a small business and gift this as a taonga to my customers to introduce aspects of te ao Māori.”

Three poetry books were nominated – Everyone is Everyone Except You by Jordan Hamel, The Stupefying by Nick Ascroft, and Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised by Alice Te Punga Somerville. Kieran wrote of the Somerville collection, which is shortlisted for tonight’s Biggsy poetry prize at the Ockhams, “My favourite poem is  ‘An Indigenous scholar’s request to other scholars’ where the poem begins with a very simple request, made up of about three lines, which then has two full pages of footnotes explaining every single part of it, so nobody has anywhere they can hide from it, or pretend to be misunderstanding it. I’m an English teacher and plan on teaching several of these poems to my class this year.”

There will always be an audience for books on the natural world; we live in one of the most astonishing natural wonderlands in the world.  And so Martin nominated Mountains, Volcanoes, Coasts and Caves: Origins of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Natural Wonders by Bruce Hayward, and wrote, “The first time I met geologist Bruce Hayward was on a heritage festival walk in Three Kings. He pointed out volcanic structures that I had regularly walked past without noticing, and drew a chalk diagram on the footpath to help us understand the how and why.”

More on the natural world. Megan nominated Secrets of the Sea: The Story of New Zealand’s Native Sea Creatures by Robert Vennell, shortlisted for the illustrated nonfiction prize this evening. She wrote, “Even after years of exploration of the carbon sink we call the ocean, I am constantly discovering marine plants and animals I’ve never encountered before. A month ago, in Tōtararanui/Marlborough Sounds, I spied a creamy mass on the wave-disturbed surface as we exited the marina. We circumnavigated the frond-like substance, to further determine if it was animal or vegetable. The mass seemed indistinguishable even at closer inspection. Google helped solve the mystery: it was a lion’s mane jellyfish – or part thereof. They can grow up to 2m in radius and have 36m tentacles. Luckily our specimen was an armful at most and, perhaps, missing its umbrella body. Its interior was a deep cerise, hinting at burgundy.

“Nature provides the backdrop to, and content for, entrancing tales. Sometimes the marvels of reality – which we often overlook or distance ourselves from through distraction and ‘priorities’ – provide us with the most astonishing stories of all. “

One more on the natural world. Amber nominated After Dark: Walking into the Nights of Aotearoa by Annette Lees, and wrote, “It was so beautiful, so evocative and well written. I even started sleeping on our deck, at that time I lived at Karekare beach and gave myself over completely to embracing the night; sleeping on the deck outside, night walking and identifying all the nights creatures…Weeks after I finished it, our home at Karekare was washed down the hill in a landslide, so those memories are now very precious. I endeavour to embrace the night living on the city side of the Waitakere ranges now. “

Many thanks to all who entered. It was such an interesting exercise that it needs repeating, next year: the so-called People’s Choice award may be informal, but it’s substantial, credible, tangible. New Zealand books need New Zealand readers. Reviewers reviewing at length, and Ockham judges judging at length, are essential. So, too, are readers who respond with pleasure and joy. One of the best nominations came from Moata, who wrote of How to Loiter in a Class War by Coco Solid, “I loved the fucking fuck out of it.”

The Ockham New Zealand national book awards are held tonight at the Aotea Centre, Auckland. ReadingRoom will announce the winners and provide instant blathering commentary at about 9:15pm.

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $38) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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