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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Friday, April 15, 2011

And the winner is...

Here's a handy tip for shortlisted authors attending a prize announcement: bring an entourage. I'm not knocking the book crowd, but there were more sharp haircuts and tattoos than is usual for a literary event at the celebration for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award.

Last night at the champagne bar of Waterstone's Piccadilly, author Joanne Harris had the difficult task of picking a winner from six disparate and equally brilliant titles: Dan Smith's Brazil-set thriller, Dry Season ('I've always had a soft spot for ex-priests,' Harris said); Emma Henderson's moving, off-kilter love story Grace Williams Says it Loud; L R Fredericks' erudite, metaphysical country-house drama Farundell; Kishwar Desai's Witness the Night, with its feisty female sleuth uncovering the tragedy of female foeticide in India; London Triptych, Jonathan Kemp's evocation of three voices of gay London from the era of Oscar Wilde onwards; and The Still Point, Amy Sackville's lovely novel twining together the story of a tragic Arctic expedition and that of a modern woman adrift in her own life.

The prize has a unique selection process: books submitted by publishers for consideration are dispatched to members of the Authors Club for assessment (one of the perks of membership is a constant flow of novels from September to February). The members submit detailed and often painfully frank reports to a panel, chaired by me, which also discusses the submissions in depth, over many a glass of wine. It's a broadly democratic process whereby the books that receive the highest number of positive reports go through. 

However, a book that everyone agrees on could also be a bland, box-ticking exercise, or a perfectly executed creative writing course novel. That's where the panel, formed of agents, authors and critics, comes in. We're there to champion difficult, experimental, original work of high literary quality. Sometimes we end up shortlisting something we can't all agree on, but have had the most enjoyable and lengthy arguments about.

By the end of this protracted process we're pretty confident that our six shortlisted books have tangible literary merits and will appeal to a broad range of readers. 'They've all got plots!' Joanne Harris said approvingly. In her speech, she had kind and perceptive comments to make about all the titles and then  (drum roll) announced that the winner was... London Triptych!

And Jonathan Kemp's entourage went crazy. There were shrieks, cheers, even a few sobs, and Kemp momentarily disappeared into a whirl of hugs. It was a thrilling moment that convinced us all that the right decision had been made. Even more thrilling was the way the other shortlisted authors generously congratulated him when the hubbub died down. 

The other authors aren't 'losers' either. It's no mean feat to come in the top six of a large number of other novels, after such an intense scrutiny from judges who are all literary professionals (in an era of celebrity judges, that's another thing that makes this prize special). Read them all.

At the end of the night, the victorious Brighton contingent (he's published by Brighton-based Myriad Editions) decamped to the highly appropriate venue of Kettners in Soho, which Oscar Wilde used to frequent. Congratulations to Jonathan Kemp, who wowed us all with his charm, his whiskers - and his sexy, witty and daring first novel. 

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