Costa First Novel award: the books that nearly made it

At the beginning of November I travelled to London for an intense - and at times gruelling - six-hour meeting to decide the shortlist (and winner) of this year's Costa First Novel award. Having already whittled the original long-list of 94 submitted novels down to just twelve, we then proceeded - over the course of the day - to fine-tune this selection down to just four, with one overall winner.

It has been quite an experience to be involved in the awards, but at the moment I feel like a marathon runner, elated at having crossed the line, but hobbling a bit (metaphorically) on sore reading feet, wondering if I would ever do it again (I secretly suspect that I would, but not perhaps for a while...).

I am extremely proud of the four books we eventually selected, but I will forever look at the shortlists from other prizes and fully appreciate just how much hard work has gone into the selection of the books!

Reading over 40 debut novels since mid-Summer has been challenging (particularly spliced between my regular bookshop reading). Many of the books I greatly enjoyed reading, several of them I definitely didn't. But I do feel slightly guilty ('judging remorse' anyone?) that in making my own shortlist, several books were close to making the cut, and missed out for reasons which now appear less obvious. I can't help wondering that if I had read the books in a different order, or at a different time during the Summer, they might have been selected instead.

I know - as a bookseller - how difficult it is as a debut writer to get off the ground. Without sounding pompous, I did feel that there was a big responsibility on you to make the right selection, simply because of what it will mean - in terms of sales, visibility, etc. - for those authors on the shortlist. It's a tough life for the newly published; rarely do book buyers come into a bookshop specifically to try out a new author. It is not uncommon for readers - particularly men - to want to try a new writer *only* if they have several books published. A friend of mine explained it thus: "I don't get much time to read. Therefore, if I'm going to invest time and effort in trying a new author, I need to know that - if I like him or her - there will be other books to read by them." That's tough to hear if you are a new author, what chance does that give you?!

Which brings me to the point of this post: to mention, in dispatches, those novels that very nearly made it into the selection, and certainly books I would recommend (with perhaps a few provisos) when choosing your next book.

Most importantly - they are all authors to watch. They are definitely worth your time and effort to try, they could all have made my personal shortlist given different circumstances. They are listed in the order I scored them during the judging process:

Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile

To me, this was my stand-out read of the entire list, and I have been championing the book in the shop, and two of my bookgroups have had the book foisted upon them. It is a stunning - and breathtaking - debut novel which takes a difficult and taboo subject (a woman embaarking on a sexual relationship with her father) but treats it with such sympathy and strong writing, you quickly push past your reservations, judging the characters on their own terms and examining your feelings. Although you know it won't end well (and it doesn't) it is still a book that lives long in the memory, and - like all great art - pushes you well out of your comfort zone to see the world in a slightly different way. Ultimately the book probably didn't make it onto the shortlist because of its subject matter - but Anne Peile's novel has made a big impact on me, and readers in the bookshop. Oh, and I loved the cover...

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph
A simple tale, elegantly told, which links together both the old and the new in India. It tells the story of Mohan, who is one of a dying breed of 'letter writer' - a once-proud profession, writing letters to order for a variety of customers, and now a victim both of modern technology and spreading literacy. Into the life of Mohan and his wife Lakshmi comes Ashish, forced to repeat his final year in college. We thus follow, slowly and compellingly, the hopes, fears and desires that exist within a very small cast of characters. It is strikingly different from many other Indian novels, and - in terms of the quality of the prose - easily the best novel I read. (Poor cover incidentally, but looks like they are remedying that on the mass market paperback).

Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller
Powerful debut set against the backdrop of the real-life shocking massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. Whilst not shying away from details of the event, I found it ultimately a life-affirming story written with a lack of polemic. Through the eyes of translator Ivan - an 18-year old Danish-Palestinian who hangs around and assists a variety of Lebanese, Palestinian and Western medical volunteers in the camps - we watch events unfold with a grim inevitability. This book ultimately shows that ordinary people with courage, even in the midst of atrocity, can plot a path to a more hopeful future. I loved this book, but the details of the massacre are very shocking.

Making Shore by Sara Allerton
This so very nearly made my final list - and perhaps it should have. It is based in part on a remarkable true story of survival at sea, and in that regard the writing is dignified yet compelling. Having survived the torpedoing of his boat during WWII, young wireless operator Cubby Clarke endures a terrible ordeal with other survivors from the boat, and even when they reach land, their ordeal is not over. But the reason for the power of this novel is its framing within a relationship between one of his shipmates and his fiancee, which packs an enormous emotional wallop and raises this far above a standard wartime survival story. The book deserves to reach a wide audience.

The Reluctant Mullah by Sagheer Afzal
This is the book David Lodge might have written if he had been a British Muslim. A cracking set of characters (my favourite being a Confuscious-spouting, foul-mouthed but endearing Muslim builder) with Musa, recently kicked out of his North-London Madrasaha, and looking for true-love, being the most compelling and sympathetic. I felt I learned a lot about British muslim life, not to mention aspects of the Koran that were surprising and accessible. A solid - and fresh - debut.

The Clay Dreaming by Ed Hillyer
This is a great novel, but its sheer length counted against it - wouldn't have been surprised to have seen it on the Booker longlist though, as it is that good. Set against the backdrop of a real (and forgotten) Australian Aboriginal cricket tour that took place in England in 1868, Victorian London comes alive in a way Dickens would've been proud. Genuinely gripping - the tour may or may not succeed financially, and the Aboriginies cannot be trusted to behave 'properly' - I really enjoyed this book, and hope it does well.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Hats off to Gollancz - a publisher I admire - for submitting a hard SF novel to the Costas. As someone who always champions SF to anyone who will listen, I wanted to select it, didn't think I could get away with it, but I loved it and I hope it wins loads of SF awards. It's a smart, fast-paced thriller set in the far-future but with loads of literary references from SF staples to Sherlock Holmes.

Quilt by Nicholas Royle

This book is bonkers. Experimental in the correct sense of the word (as opposed to the over-excited PR pumped out to accompany 'C') as first I wondered if I should even read this book (one chapter is a list of alphabetised words). But as a study of a father and son relationship, and as the dissembling of a once-sane individual, the imaginative use of language is startling, and I've never read anything even remotely like it. I don't trust my own critical faculties enough to pronounce whether this is a great book - or whether it even works - but I found it compelling and it's one of the books that has stayed with me from earlier in the Summer.

So there we go. Eight books which might have made it but didn't. It was interesting reading some of the press response to the shortlist. Boyd Tonkin was perplexed by the choice of books, and makes some good points about the chosen novels which are fair enough. The only point I would make to him is that all of us unanimously loved Neel Mukherjee's "A Life Apart" and had it not been disqualified on the ground of having been published previously under a different title, would probably have made the shortlist. I hope that makes him feel slightly better...and I'm keen to see how RobAroundBooks does on his reading through the shortlist as someone is a self-professed lover of debut novels (and they are in short supply, I can tell you...)

Finally, some interesting observations about the 'snapshot' of new writing that my reading threw up. Not many generalisations, but although "Creative Writing MA" increasingly crops up in author biographies in the shop, there was little evidence of that in the debuts. The strength of Asian writing (and issues) is notable (and The Times of India thought it worth commenting recently as well).

But to me the most striking aspect was the background of the authors. Many had already achieved a measure of success in other creative fields, such as poetry, non-fiction, screenwriting, journalism. Whether this had given them the inspiration - or the contacts - to break into the publishing field is an interesting point to debate. Either way, I think it's a healthy sign that 'living the writing life' (and spending a life writing) might be the best way to end up being a fiction author...

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