British Fiction Focus

The Week Before Christmas Brings Strange New Things

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s regular round-up of book news from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

“’Twas the week before Christmas, and in the genre fiction business, not a news story was broken, neither written nor spoken…”

Which is to say, it’s been quite a quiet week, at least in terms of stories to feature in the Focus. I do have a few newsie nuggets to share with you, sure, but I’ve had to stretch the definition of genre fiction a bit to make ‘em fit.

Not that that makes today’s two items any less momentous! First of all, a round of applause for the folks behind the Costa Book Awards, who have bucked a terrible trend and nominated an all-female shortlist for Best Novel. Very refreshing. Stay tuned, too, for news about Michel Faber’s long-awaited next novel, and some healthy speculation about its potentially sfnal nature.

2013 According to Costa

Let’s begin with a little history:

The Costa Book Awards honour some of the most outstanding books of the year written by authors based in the UK and Ireland. There are five categories — First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book — with one of the five winners chosen as Book of the Year, announced at an awards ceremony in London every January. […] Launched in 1971 as the Whitbread Literary Awards, they became the Whitbread Book Awards in 1985, with Costa taking over in 2006.

In all honestly, the Costa Book Awards are not among the literary accolades I’ve paid particular attention to in the past, but the committee who pick the winners have done two particularly positive things with the prize in 2013.

First and foremost, I suppose, they announced an all-female fiction shortlist featuring four notable novels, including Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld and Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop, who died in July.

Although it is obviously unusual, Bishop is not the first to be posthumously nominated for the Costa awards, joining excellent company including Ted Hughes, who won book of the year for Birthday Letters in 1998 and Simon Gray, shortlisted in 2009 for his post-Smoking Diaries memoir, Coda.

Cancer forced [Bishop’s] retirement from her successful career as a psychotherapist but it was being given the all-clear by her oncologist that really spurred her to take up writing again. “She completed three novels in the most extraordinarily short order,” said [her editor, Kate] Parkin. “There was an energy there that she tapped into… out it poured.”

Unexpected Lessons in Love centres on two women who become friends, both diagnosed with cancer, but it is a book that readers will feel better for reading, said Parkin. “It is a novel of someone who is completely on top of their game; I think it is an extraordinary achievement.”

kate atkinson life after life

Of the aforementioned nominees, only Life After Life is of special speculative interest. I dare say it may be a case of always the bridesmaid, never the bride for Kate Atkinson’s haunting tale of time travel; I don’t think she’ll win — though she did take home the overall trophy for Behind the Scenes at the Museum in 1995 — but it’s nice to see her awesome novel nominated again.

Meanwhile, according to an article in The Guardian:

Six short stories are being put anonymously to a public vote to decide the winner of the Costa Short Story Prize 2013, which will be awarded next January. […] Costa added the short story gong to its roster of five other book awards last year, but chose to judge it anonymously, and separately from the others.

More than 1,400 short stories were submitted for this year’s prize, and a shortlist was chosen by a panel of judges who did not know the names of the writers. They were Richard Beard, director of the National Academy of Writing, Fanny Blake, novelist, journalist and books editor of Woman and Home magazine, writer Victoria Hislop, and Simon Trewin, agent at William Morris Endeavor literary agency.

The six short stories are “Still Water, BC,” “The Forgiveness Thing,” “The Gun Shearer,” “The Keeper of the Jackalopes,” “The Old Man and the Suit” and “The Papakh Hat.” You can read them all for free right here — audio versions are also available on the same page — and cast your vote afterwards.

The decision to publish these stories anonymously is a wonderful one, I think. To strip the shorts of their authors and any accompanying expectations can only lead to a decision less bowed by bias. Would that we could do the same with full-length books!

The winners in each of the Costa Book Awards’ categories will be announced on January 6th, with a decision about the overall Book of the Year to follow on January 28th. Note that the Short Story Prize winner is not eligible for this, though the decision to exclude it from contention in 2013 caused some small stink.


About The Book of Strange New Things

Not only was Michel Faber’s last new book a huge hit, it was bloody good too. The Crimson Petal and the White was initially pitched as “the first great 19th century novel of the 21st century,” and I couldn’t have put it better myself. In the twelve years since its publication by Canongate in 2002 it’s sold several hundred thousand copies and been the basis for a major BBC miniseries. It also spawned a successful collection of short stories set in the same timeframe.

michael faber under the skin

Me, I’m a Michel Faber fan because of another novel, namely the supremely unsettling Under the Skin: a sinister Scottish speculative fiction story in wolf’s clothing. So the announcement late last week of Faber’s first full-on novel in in excess of a decade was the best sort of early Christmas present. The Book of Strange New Things is once again coming from Canongate, who are being tellingly tight-lipped about the whole business:

Canongate has signed world rights to a “significant” new novel from author Michel Faber and will publish in November 2014.

The book is said to open with a man saying goodbye to his wife before setting out on a perilous journey as a Christian missionary and is described as “an unexpected and wildly original novel about adventure, faith and the ties that might hold two people together when they are worlds apart.” Key elements of the story will be withheld until publication.

What key elements could these be?

Given the sinister twist in Under the Skin, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bit in the blurb about our man and his wife being “worlds apart” is a hint about the true nature of this major new novel.

Canongate publishing director Francis Bickmore said the novel will be somewhere between Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal in length and is “Faber at his expectation-defying best,” calling it “a brilliantly compelling book about love in the face of death, and the search for meaning in an unfathomable universe”.

“Readers won’t have encountered anything quite like it before,” he promised.

Bickmore added: “We’re incredibly ambitious for publication; we’re so excited about the quality of the writing and the ambition of the project. Michel Faber is one of the most significant writers in the English language at the moment and this book delivers on that promise.”

It needs to be November already!

Buy hey, I won’t wish the holidays away. Certainly not with Christmas Day just one week from today, and the New Year a hot toddy on its heels.

Like many of the regular features we enjoy here on, the British Genre Fiction Focus will be taking a bit of a break for the next week or two or three… we’ll see. But in its absence, from the bottom of my newshound’s heart, you all have a wonderful holiday, you hear?

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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