Sheryl Shurville, co-owner of Chorleywood and Gerrards Cross Bookshops, and one of this year’s Costa judges – complete with obligatory coffee…

Books To Enjoy… Rather Than Admire

30th December 2016

Jill Glenn meets Sheryl Shurville, owner of Chorleywood Bookshop and one of this year’s Costa First Novel Award Judges. Plus, potted reviews of the shortlist for the Costa Children’s Book Award, the Novel and the First Novel Award for 2016.

The idea of being given fifty novels and instructed to read and critique them by a certain date is both exhilarating and appalling. How could you discriminate intelligently? How would you remember them all? And how would you possibly get through them in time?

Such were the questions that beset Chorleywood Bookshop’s Sheryl Shurville this summer, when she joined author Justin Cartwright and Charlotte Heathcote, Literary Editor of the Daily/Sunday Express, to judge the Costa First Novel Award, after being approached “out of the blue” by Bud McLintock, director of the Costa Book Awards. Sheryl regards the request as a huge honour – despite the momumental challenge.

She is, of course, a keen reader (indeed, she declares that she became co-owner of Chorleywood Bookshop purely on the strength of a love of reading and an interest in people; her background, curiously, is in nursing and midwifery) – but even for her the task of reducing fifty books to three was daunting. She read constantly to get through her quota – in the bath, at the stove – and found the experience invigorating. She is passionate about the transformative power of books, and a wonderful advocate for new and interesting authors. “There’s so much good writing out there,” she says, adding that she was particularly pleased to have been asked to judge the First Novel Award. “It’s great to come across unrecognised talent, and to have a part in bringing it to the fore.”

According to Bud McLintock, a ‘Costa’ book is a “sparkling, eminently readable book with broad appeal.” She quotes author Robert Harris, chairman of the 2014 final judging panel, who said that the Costa Book Awards celebrate “books that people want to read, not feel they ought to read. Books to enjoy, rather than admire”.

The brief, therefore, was to pinpoint “the year’s outstanding books”. Not only did Sheryl read ferociously in pursuit of her goal, but she also made copious notes in a dedicated Costa notebook, to ensure she could recall them all correctly. “Books that grab the attention from the start are great”, she acknowledges, but she’s also prepared to give a novel some time, in the pursuit of something that will stand out from the crowd.

“Some don’t hold the attention as well as others, of course, but nevertheless, cutting the list down is a real challenge. It’s really important to honour the books in both the reading and the choosing… and, of course, it can change a writer’s life…”

Judging took place in a private room (discretion assured) in a London hotel at the beginning of November, with lunch and what Sheryl describes as a “lively and healthy” discussion. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, then? “Not at all. All the books under consideration had merit. All would have been worthy winners.” By this stage the submissions had been whittled down to nine, three from each of the judges, who all read a different original fifty. When they came together they had all caught up on each other’s choices, had hard copies in front of them, and were ready to fight for their favourites. “It wasn’t an easy process,” Sheryl admits, “but it was very amicable.”

And the outcome speaks for itself. Sheryl is frustratingly discreet about details and statistics, but does admit that each of the judges had at least one of their choices on the final shortlist. I’m longing to know which was hers… but she’s not telling yet.

The Category Winners (including those for Poetry and Biography) will be announced on Tuesday 3 January, and the Costa Book of the Year will be revealed on Tuesday 31 January

COSTA CHILDRENS BOOK SHORTLIST

The Bombs That Brought Us Together: Brian Conaghan

Bloomsbury | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

In the opening chapter, Charlie,15, is lying huddled and terrified under his duvet as bombs rain down on his home. He lives in Little Town, and the bombs are coming from the Old Country, where, as Charlie understands, the government ‘doesn’t like how things are done here. The way of life, the beliefs. Undemocratic’. So when he meets fellow teen Pavel, a political refugee from the Old Country, their friendship brings far-reaching consequences: not least Charlie’s questioning of all that he’s been brought up to believe in.

A sadly all-too-relevant dystopian satire.

Orangeboy: Patrice Lawrence

Hodder Children’s Books | reviewed by Jill Glenn

Marlon is 16 – ‘not cool enough, not clever enough’ – and bound by a promise he’s made to his mother: not to follow big brother Andre down the wrong path. We meet our hero at the fair, on an unexpected hot date that ends in tragedy – and trouble. Marlon finds himself caught up in the gang culture and criminal underworld he was determined to avoid, and with difficult decisions to make.

This powerful coming-of-age drama –both violent and sensitive – keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. It’s all about doing the wrong thing for the right reasons…

The Monstrous Child: Francesca Simon

Faber & Faber/Profile Books | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

There’s little difference between an immortal god and a spoilt child – both are deliciously demanding, wilful and self-centred. The author of Horrid Henry has created a new, brilliantly horrid heroine in the form of teen goddess Hel, daughter of the naughtiest of all Norse gods, Loki. Hel is fated to be the unwilling ruler of the underworld and is sworn to do three things: escape, exact revenge and see her beloved, handsome Baldr once more.

Just don’t pity her – and don’t get in her way, or you’ll be sorry.

A monstrously good fantasy take on Norse mythology.

Time Travelling with a Hamster: Ross Welford

HarperCollins Children’s Books | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

This is a charming, bittersweet story, full of enough science and tech to keep the biggest sci-fi geek happy, but with enough heart to enthrall the general reader too.

Al Chaudhury is twelve years old. His beloved dad died four years ago and now he lives with his mum, a step-sister-from-hell, and a burping, football-mad stepfather. When he discovers his dad’s time-machine, he tries desperately to change the chain of events that led to his father’s death.

Cue lots of mystery, adventure, metaphysical conundrum… and one cute hamster.

COSTA NOVEL AWARD SHORTLIST

Days Without End: Sebastian Barry

Faber & Faber | reviewed by Jill Glenn

I wanted to read this quickly; it was the last on my list, and I needed it done… but I couldn’t. Instead, I cancelled social engagements and gave Days Without End the time it deserved.

Sebastian Barry’s narrative voice never falters in this beautifully realised account of love and war in the American West. We are in the head of Irishman Thomas McNulty (a scion of the Sligo family about whom much of Barry’s work revolves), who has fled his own country after famine and bereavement. He hooks up with New Englander, John Cole, and the pair enlist, fighting in the Indian Wars and the Civil War and remaining together afterwards.

This is, in effect, a Western, but it transcends the limitations of its genre. Events are savage, and savagely described, but in language that is sublime. McNulty doesn’t shy away from awful truths, but his telling is thoughtful and profound. The writing takes my breath away; the style is both lyrical and direct, and, there’s a rich rooting in the physicality of landscape and weather that grounds it and gives it weight. Barry has delivered an epic work, that captivates from the first sentence to the last.

This Must Be The Place: Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

If, as Costa judge Sheryl Shurville says, the biggest reason for a book being shortlisted is that it’s ‘eminently readable’, then this meets the criteria in spades. I’m hooked right from the start, laughing at Daniel’s brilliantly witty depiction of his ‘crazy’ but beautiful wife, Claudette; in O’Farrell’s dexterous way, though, levity soon turns to sadness, to surprise, to agitation.

The structure is unusual: we begin in the present, but then jump about in time, focusing on episodes in each of the main protagonists’ lives; ultimately it paints a compelling dramatic narrative: similar, but even less linear than David Nicholls’ One Day. We get spoilers – in several chapters we learn what will happen in the future, but far from detracting, this adds to the tension and builds our understanding. It also means lots of ‘aha’ moments for the reader to relish.

O’Farrell’s greatest strength is the gift for making us fall in love with her flawed characters. No-one is ever all good or all bad, black or white – Daniel and Claudette are both Farrow & Ball paint charts of complicated, charismatic and narcissistic greys. This is a wonderful read about love in all its guises.

The Essex Serpent: Sarah Perry

Serpent’s Tail | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

This is a beautiful novel, set in late 19th century England, and rich with imagery and metaphor. Is the eponymous Essex serpent an imaginary predator, dreamed up by the near-pagan villagers and symbolic of their preference for superstition over reason? Or is it the Biblical serpent: the emblem of temptation that stands for the repressed attraction between widowed Cora, the main character of the novel, and Will, the local married reverend?

There are also subtle references to Aesculpian metaphor – the Greek god Asclepius was associated with medicine and healing, and carried a mythical serpent-entwined rod. We learn that Dr Luke Garrett, Cora’s friend, finds hubristic fame after carrying out pioneering heart surgery, but his professional success fails to be reflected in his personal life, and his love for the charmingly eccentric Cora is unrequited.

The Essex Serpent explores the ideas of science, religion and politics that gathered momentum at this time, but does so in a relaxed and meandering tone, as if respectful of the slower pace of life that Cora seeks when she leaves London for Essex, following her husband’s death. A thoroughly intriguing read.

The Gustav Sonata: Rose Tremain

Chatto & Windus | reviewed by Jill Glenn

Gustav Perle, for whom Rose Tremain’s 13th novel is named, lives his life in a small Swiss town according to a code of self-control and restraint inculcated in him from his earliest days, by a mother who has forgotten how to love. She advocates self-mastery and neutrality. “Then, you will have the right kind of life.” It’s a big ask of an impoverished small child, especially given that the kind of life Gustav wants is the one lived by his friend, Anton Zwiebel: mercurial, musical, Jewish. Gustav’s father, now dead, lost his job by helping Jewish refugees into the country when the border was closed to them. His mother is still bitter.

Sonata-like, the novel is told in three movements: Gustav’s boyhood, then the period of his parents’ courtship and marriage, finally – after a gap of some forty years, which Tremain glosses over with frustrating ease – Gustav and Anton’s middle age. It’s an ambitious timeframe – and has ambitious themes: compassion, humanity, love, longing.

There’s much to like about this book, but much, also, that proves unsatisfying. And at the heart is immense sadness, making it, perhaps, a more difficult read than the quality of the writing should deliver.

COSTA FIRST NOVEL AWARD SHORTLIST

The Good Guy: Susan Beale

John Murray | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

Young salesman Ted is ‘one of the good guys’ – hell, he even folds laundry and cares for his daughter while his wife, Abigail, attends evening classes: unheard of in patriarchal 1960s New England.

Abigail loves her family and wants to be a good mother and wife, but is shocked at how stultifying she finds domestic life. There are only so many stories about floor wax that she can swap with the other wives. Meanwhile they tease her enviously about her ‘perfect husband’.

While Abigail yearns for challenge, Ted craves the attention and admiration he feels is lacking from his clever, frustrated wife. Still telling himself he’s a good guy, he embarks on an illicit friendship with Penny – a young secretary who dreams of a handsome, generous husband just like Ted.

The narrative switches skilfully between Ted, Abigail and Penny: a balanced, sometimes heartbreaking, insight into each of their hopes – which are equally, but differently, frustrated by the suffocating social pressure to conform. With echoes of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, this is a tale of an outwardly idyllic marriage, that in private is unravelling horribly.

The Words in my Hand: Guinevere Glasfurd

Two Roads | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

I adore historical fiction, and this is the best of its kind. Helena Jans is a young maid in a bookseller’s middle class home, in 17th century Holland – and we follow the story as it unfolds through her eyes.

She’s the kind of plucky-but-sensitive heroine you really root for (although, at times, also frustratingly naive). In an age when everyone keeps to their god-given place – which, for a maid-of-all-work, is pretty much at the bottom of an utterly miserable heap – Helena teaches herself to read and write, miraculous for someone of her class, let alone her gender.

When the young René Descartes (he of the most famous of all philosophical maxims ‘I think, therefore I am’) arrives as a lodger, it’s no surprise that they embark on a tentative friendship, based on mutual wonder at the world around them.

Glasfurd was apparently inspired by ancient letters that survive from the pair’s relationship, and cleverly weaves scant historic fact with a tenderly and imaginative memoir of Helena’s life. One word of advice, though – don’t make the mistake of googling Descartes’ personal life, as I did, or there will be spoilers!

Golden Hill: Francis Spufford

Faber & Faber | reviewed by Jill Glenn

On a damp evening in November 1746, one Richard Smith – a man with no past that he cares to speak of (‘the lovely power of being a stranger’) – disembarks in New York, then a very small British colonial town at the tip of Manhattan Island. He goes straight from the boat to a counting house where he proposes to cash a bill for one thousand pounds. The idea is preposterous; it could bankrupt the payee, and news of this questionable arrival from England spreads rapidly through the small community.

What follows includes political intrigue, mystery and suspicion, romance and some rather steamy sex, along with plot devices that sound melodramatic but make perfect sense in the context: a ball, a duel, a high-stakes card game, a trial and a rooftop chase.

‘The best 18th century novel since the 18th century’, said Frances Stonor Saunders on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review. It’s the perfect assessment of this rich, riotously packed novel.

Golden Hill is, miraculously, both a slow, demanding read and a fabulously engaging one. It’s a truly great achievement.

My Name is Leon: Kit de Waal

Penguin | reviewed by Jill Glenn

Set in Birmingham in the early 1980s, against a backdrop of race riots and social unrest, My Name is Leon is a moving and powerful account of sibling love, family breakdown and how to survive when your world falls apart. Leon is nine years old, newly possessed of a baby brother whom he adores and does his best to look after when his damaged, difficult mother fails to cope. When the boys are taken into care, it rapidly becomes evident that baby Jake, who is white, has a bright new adoptive future awaiting him, while Leon, who is mixed race, does not.

Kit de Waal, the child of a Caribbean father and an Irish foster carer mother, brings considerable personal experience to the page. Her credentials are impeccable: she worked for many years in family law, has written manuals on adoption/foster care and still sits on adoption panels. Her insights translate into a novel with great resonance. It would be easy to descend into sentimentality as Leon learns how to live with loss and navigate a new, uncertain life, but de Waal resists. This is a tender, engaging story, full of energy and life, that grabs your heart-strings and won’t let go.

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