The presentation ceremony for the 2011 Costa Book Awards was never going to be any old bash. Held at Quaglino’s, the chic London restaurant, hosted by TV presenter Penny Smith (looking resplendent in a long silver dress) and with guests including Maureen Lipman, Esther Rantzen, Natasha Kaplinsky, Jacqueline Wilson, Simon Mayo and Fiona Philips, the party totally lived up to expectations. Even better, Andrew Miller’s brilliant novel, Pure, scooped the top award.
When I reviewed the five Costa category winners (novel, first novel, biography, poetry and children’s book) for a newspaper last week I wrote: “If it was down to me, I’d be hard-pressed to choose between Andrew Miller’s novel and Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas – two captivating books that both deserve a wider audience.”
The judges, who included comedian Hugh Dennis, actress Dervla Kirwan and broadcaster Mary Nightingale, clearly thought the same.
Announcing the winner, chair of the judges Geordie Greig admitted that the 90-minute judging session that afternoon had been a “tussle” between two books - Miller’s Pure and Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas. “There was quite bitter dissent and argument to find the winner,” he said. “The debate was prolonged with passionate views over two books.”
But in the end Pure triumphed and a slightly stunned-looking Miller stepped on stage to accept his prize – a £30,000 cheque to add to the £5,000 Costa novel prize he’d already won. “You spend three years in a room on your own,” he said, “and by the time you give a book to your publisher you never really know what it is any more.”
Andrew Miller caused a stir earlier in the year when he beat Booker prizewinner Julian Barnes to take the Costa novel prize. But his book is one that stays in your head long after you’ve finished reading. Stylish, compelling and beautifully written, it’s the story of an 18th century engineer charged with the “delicate and gross” task of demolishing an ancient, crumbling cemetery in the heart of Paris.
Even though Matthew Hollis didn’t take the overall prize, his biography is one of this year’s must-reads. Engrossing and impeccably researched, it's the account of the five years leading up to Edward Thomas’s death at the war front in 1917 – including his inspirational friendship with American poet Robert Frost, his tricky marriage and his move (encouraged by Frost) from writing prose to poetry.
The other three category winners are remarkable books too. I was one of the judges for the Costa first novel award and out of 87 contenders we chose the gripping Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. Written by paediatric nurse Christie Watson, it’s the tale of Blessing, a 12-year-old Nigerian girl who swaps a privileged upbringing in Lagos for an impoverished life in the Niger Delta following the break-up of her parents’ marriage. At times hilarious, it's an uplifting and moving novel from a writer to watch.
The winner of the Costa children’s book prize was Moira Young’s stunning Blood Red Road, which I reviewed on the blog a couple of weeks back, while the poetry prizewinner was poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy for The Bees, a vibrant collection of love poems, political poems and the moving Last Post, written for the last surviving soldiers to fight in the 1914-1918 war.
PS. As if all this wasn’t exciting enough, Costa managing director John Derkach announced at the party that the the Costa Book Awards are to introduce a new short story award (it won’t be judged alongside the five other category winners.) More details will follow later in the year.
PPS. Andrew Miller and Christie Watson are both University of East Anglia creative writing graduates – proof once again that creative writing courses really do work!