A first-time novelist has made it to the finals of this year's Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Becky Manawatu's novel Auē, dedicated to her cousin Glen Bo Duggan who was beaten to death when he was 10 years old, joins Owen Marshall's Pearly Gates, Carl Shuker's A Mistake and David Vann's Halibut on the Moon in contention for the $55,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for fiction.

Auē tells the story of Ārama, an 8 year old whose parents have died while his elder brother, Taukiri, has abandoned him, so he lives with his aunty and her abusive partner on their farm. The book was partly motivated by Glen's death at the hands of Peter Wayne Ryder, his mother's partner.

Glen lived with Manawatu's family for two years before moving; she was 11 when he died. Speaking from her home on the West Coast, Manawatu, now 37, says his murder remains strong in her mind.

"It is an event that never leaves; it's not just me but my whole family who are forever affected by it. That this book has done so well, hopefully, it will continue to open up conversations about children in New Zealand."

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The novel received five-star reviews from local critics, with Herald writer and Newsroom literary editor Steve Braunias said it was the best book of 2019. Canvas reviewer Elizabeth Heritage described Auē as a difficult but rewarding read.

"It deals with the cycles of violence, poverty and addiction set against the traumatic intergenerational effects of colonialism and racism in Aotearoa. Auē is a wail of distress. That might sound grim – and there certainly are many heartbreaking moments – but Manawatu (Ngāi Tahu) weaves threads of aroha throughout."

Westport-based journalist Manawatu said she'd been too busy at work on Monday to take the call from her publisher, Mākaro Press, giving her the good news and had, instead, been sent a Facebook message – complete with flowers and champagne bottle – emojis.

"I able to receive the news in a 'good place' because I was actually going to be happy not to have been shortlisted – just making it to the longlist was something – because I'd received and read that morning a really beautiful review, by Arihia Latham in Landfall," she says. "That set me up to truly enjoy the news when it came and it was better than I expected."

Award-winning Australian (Wiradjuri) writer Tara June Winch will assist three New Zealand judges to select this year's prize winner. The winner, along with those in three other categories, will be announced at a ceremony on May 12 - the first public event of this year's Auckland Writers Festival. The winners of the four MitoQ Best First Book awards will also be named.

Meanwhile, Canvas columnist Ashleigh Young is a finalist in the Mary and Peter Biggs award for poetry. The shortlisted finalists are:

Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction:
Auē by Becky Manawatu
Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall
A Mistake by Carl Shuker
Halibut on the Moon by David Vann

Mary and Peter Biggs Awards for Poetry:
Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy
How to Live by Helen Rickerby
Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint
How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young

Illustrated Non-Fiction Award:
Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai, Damian Skinner
Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance edited by Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams, Puawai Cairns
We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa by Chris McDowall and Tim Denee
McCahon Country by Justin Paton

General Non-Fiction Award:
Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter
Shirley Smith: An Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos
Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women's Poetry by Paula Green
Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus by Sarah Myles

Finalists were selected by four panels of specialist judges and were drawn from 40 longlisted titles selected out of more than 170 entries – a 12 per cent increase on the last three years.