Costa Book Awards 2017/18

29th December 2017

Shortlisted… and Perfectly Formed

The Costa Book Awards are one of the UK’s most prestigious and popular literary prize schemes, with a remit to recognise some of the most enjoyable books of the year. Launched as the Whitbread Prizes in 1971, the awards – uniquely – have five categories: First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book. One of the five winning books is selected as the overall Costa Book of the Year.

COSTA FIRST NOVEL AWARD SHORTLIST

The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times: Xan Brooks (Salt)

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

The title of The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times is a witty metaphor for the social shift in 1920s England, when the country was recovering from the ravages of WW I: simultaneously working out how to accommodate its past and learn to be modern.

Discomfort besets you from the first pages. Four young teenagers, among them our heroine, orphan Lucy Marsh, are taken from their north London homes on weekly visits to Epping Forest to see ‘the funny men’: a quartet of damaged and disfigured ex-soldiers whose nicknames – Toto, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion – hint at an innocence that is thoroughly misplaced.

The action moves from the forest to a stately home where dissolute aristocrats and jazz musicians co-exist in a drug-and alcohol-filled haze. The house – indeed, the book – is filled with humanity at its worst, with liars and thieves and abusers, with malice and hypocrisy and exploitation. It’s filled, too, with the damaged and the vulnerable, and its dark, dysfunctional storyline is shot through with moments of unexpected charm and grace, even with love. It’s rich, and clever, and very rewarding.

Great characterisation, too. With a cast that could so easily have become caricatures – and set in an almost fairytale landscape – The Clocks is impressively realistic. It’s a wonderfully accomplished novel: anarchic, funny, shocking – an outstanding debut.

Montpelier Parade: Karl Geary (Harvill Secker)

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

A teenage boy; an older woman. From these classic components debut novelist Karl Geary weaves a tale full of elegiac sadness and wild energy, set in Dublin in the 1980s.

His own experience – he grew up there, but left as a teenager – informs the story’s background, and grounds it in grim reality. ‘The 1980s in Ireland were brutal. It was a dreadful time,’ he said recently.

There is deprivation at the novel’s heart – the deprivation of a family in economic and emotional crisis – and a stultifying lack of opportunity for young Sonny, whose life opens up to strange new possibilities when he helps his father rebuild a garden wall on genteel Montpelier Parade, on the other side of the city. The wall belongs to a house owned by Vera, an English woman old enough to be the mother whom Sonny loves but can no longer connect with. Vera is educated, cultured and unlike anyone Sonny has ever met, and the attachment they make is both utterly unlikely and absolutely inevitable. Somehow, they meet on equal terms, each with their own private tragedies to conceal.

Montpelier Parade is written throughout in the second person. It takes you by surprise, initially – it’s a voice generally difficult to sustain for more than short passages – but here it largely works, and creates a powerful intimacy between reader and writer. It has its flaws, but really, this novel is a tour de force.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: Gail Honeyman (HarperCollins)

Reviewed by Lisa Botwright

A novel about intense loneliness doesn’t sound much fun; but I fell hard for this quirky and original book and was utterly smitten with the smart, capable, but oh-so damaged central character.

‘I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor, a self-contained entity,’ Eleanor Oliphant tells us unconvincingly. Her weekends are spent alone, drinking measures of vodka ‘spread out on both days, so that I’m neither drunk nor sober’. Mondays take a long time to come around. In the week, she continues her self-imposed isolation by withdrawing icily from her colleagues. Her observations veer from hilarious disdain (‘He had the look of a gazelle or an impala, one of those boring beige animals …The kind that always gets eaten by the leopard’) and utter incomprehension (‘Every so often she would giggle like a simpleton. Human mating rituals are unbelievably tedious to observe’). We’re initially perplexed by her detachment, but as the root of her unhappiness is slowly and shockingly revealed, perplexity turns to compassion.

When she and a colleague witness an accident, Eleanor is forced to come out of her shell, involuntarily, and to interact with the person she helps. As this single act of kindness brings on karmic ramifications, we find ourselves on tenterhooks, willing Eleanor to find the inner strength to open herself up to friendship.

The Haunting of Henry Twist: Rebecca F John (Serpent's Tail)

Reviewed by Lisa Botwright

It’s 1920s London, and Ruby Twist has everything to live for: a tight knit circle of fun-loving friends, a husband she adores, and a much longed-for baby on the way. Her perfect life is snatched away her when, distracted, she steps in front of a bus. Henry Twist is left devastated by grief and with a baby daughter without a mother… ‘And yet, he has not crumpled as he thought he would. Now, it is as though his heart has paused partway through shattering and is held forever in a new fragmentary state, its brittle splinters scattered through his chest, like stitches, keeping the rest of him together.’

At first Henry avoids his friends, and eschews public life, terrified his daughter will be taken away from him. But then he meets Jack Turner, someone to whom he is irresistibly drawn. Why does Jack know his name, yet Henry doesn’t remember meeting him before? Why does Jack remind him so much of Ruby?

This is a beautifully written and atmospheric meditation on love and friendship, with an unusual supernatural edge. There is some great characterisation, such as the spoilt and vindictive Matilda who has designs on Henry, and the rich, jaded Monty who loves to stir-up drama. Overall, though, I find the novel very meandering. The structure lets the story down, and, I venture, needed tighter editing. It would have been a better novel at half its current length.

COSTA NOVEL AWARD SHORTLIST

Note that the first two reviews are slightly shorter, as these contenders for the Novel Award were reviewed earlier in the year when they were on the Man Booker longlist (Reservoir 13 and Hoe Fire). The full reviews can be found here… http://optimamagazine.co.uk/read/leisure/books

Reservoir 13: Jon McGregor (4th Estate)

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

The opening might suggest classic crime, but it’s evident that Reservoir 13 has its own particular trajectory and preoccupations that fall into no easily classifiable genre. This is a slow burn of a book: not a classic crime novel, but definitely a classic. Not a true thriller, either. But definitely thrilling.

Home Fire: Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus)

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

The phrase ‘the sins of the fathers’ could have been coined to describe Home Fire. Both wonderful and terrible (in that it deals with terrible things), it occupies the interstices between the head and the heart, between politics and faith. Shamsie has her finger very much on the pulse of the modern world.

Under a Pole Star: Stef Penney (Quercus)

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Ranging across Britain, America, Europe and the Arctic Circle in the late 1800s (with the occasional flash-forward to 1948) Under A Pole Star is a lively, rich account of turn-of-the-century polar exploration. Readers of Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves will know that she has a particular flair for writing about remote, icy landscapes and the communities marooned therein. She researches meticulously, and is very good at grounding her story into a presumed reality.

Each chapter starts with dates and precise longitudinal and latitudinal co-ordinates. It pulsates with authenticity, bringing vividly to life both the physical characteristics of the wilderness, and the emotional resonances of the people who pass through it – from Flora Mackie, daughter of a Dundee whaling captain, who first crosses the Arctic Circle in 1883 at the age of 12 and grows up to be a pioneering metereologist, to Jakob du Beyn, a New York geologist fascinated by glaciers, ice formations and big open spaces, to rival explorer Lester Armitage.

This is a brave, ambitious book with a slow-fast-fast-slow love affair at its heart. There are bold sex scenes (don’t make the mistake of thinking that an epic about a ground-breaking female explorer will be a safe bet for Granny) and moments of heart-stopping emotional intimacy. It’s not surprising that the front cover tagline describes Penney as ‘a supreme storyteller’.

Tin Man: Sarah Winman (Tinder Press)

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Ellis and Michael share a bond that runs deep. Both lost their mothers young; both have dissonant relationships with violent, bigoted fathers. They meet as lost souls who immediately bring enormous comfort to each other. ‘We just existed in each other’s company… There was a safety to our friendship. We just fit,’ Michael explains much later.

The book is in two halves, the first a set of disjointed memories from Ellis, as he looks back over his boyhood and short marriage. We feel enormous empathy, without quite understanding the full spectrum of his sorrow. There’s an unsettling feeling that we’re being kept at arm’s length. When we read Michael’s story, all becomes clear: the reasons why their friendship was severed, the extent of their feelings. ‘It took a while to acknowledge the repercussions of that time. How the numbness in my fingertips travelled to my heart and I never even knew it,’ says Michael.

Love and loss are the central themes to this exquisitely written book: loss of potential, certainly, resulting from the socio-economic frustrations of poverty, and the emptiness that comes via emotional loss. Author Sarah Winman dissects this movingly in all its forms: loss thorough bereavement, through misunderstanding or through the heartbreak of unrequited love. Her prose is deceptively sparing; with a few choice words placed cleverly in a page, it has the power to unravel you completely. Despite finding myself sobbing into my pillow at one point, I absolutely adored this captivating read.

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