Our distinguished judge Niall Bourke offers his extraordinarily generous and engaged comments on all the shortlisted authors' works, and announces his selected winner (Randy Osborne, pictured here). The winner will be offered a publishing contract with Eyewear, and a meaningful cash advance.
How does one judge the ‘best’ book? By how serious it is or by how funny? By the complexity of its metaphors or the clarity of its prose? How about, as in the case of the Beverly Prize, if we judge a 3,000 word poetry collection against a 156,000 word novel? By what criteria might we now decide which one is ‘best’? We can’t, of course. A fact I was all too acutely aware of when I sat down to read the shortlist. Ultimately, I knew any judgment about the merits or otherwise of these manuscripts would be largely (if not entirely) subjective, and dependent, whether I liked it or not, on my own proclivity and preference.
But, for better or worse, prizes necessitate judgements. And while the process of comparing books to decide on a ‘winner’ may be fundamentally and irredeemably flawed, I think the good ultimately does outweigh the bad. Prizes, like the Beverly Prize, are instrumental in finding – and then recognising and promoting – talent, and talent which might otherwise be missed.
From the outset I knew I needed to check my own biases against an honest appraisal of what each author was setting out to do and how well their manuscript executed these intentions. So my criteria in judging was as follows: I was looking for manuscripts which were original, which took risks and eschewed cliché and were not stuck trying to describe today with the voice of yesterday; I was looking for manuscripts which showed authors in control of their own voices and not beholden to others; manuscripts which had a clear vision; manuscripts which exhibited not only craft on a sentence level but also on a wider structural plane; manuscripts which made me forget I was judging by bringing me back to the unbridled pleasure of reading; and manuscripts which made me ask the essential question of someone engaging with any book well conceived – but how did the author know all that about me?
And if this sounds like a rather lofty list of criteria? Well it’s because it is. And criteria, I may add, which I often fail to reach. My decision is below. And while there can only be one winner, having being on the painful end of shortlists or two myself, I might also offer something to the other writers.
There were manuscripts here which sparkled in places but contained sections which pulled the overall momentum of the text in a different direction. There were manuscripts which were initially brilliantly conceived – but where, as the text developed, authors became more concerned with answering questions when I would have liked questions to be asked. There were manuscripts here which could have done with losing or gaining a few thousand words and, with just a tweak and a polish, will certainly go on to do well elsewhere. And there were manuscripts here which, had this shortlist been given to a different judge (or to a different me either six months prior or hence) may well have been won.
All the authors below should take great heart in what they have produced, and not least because even making the shortlist is a recognition of quality. After judging, I was unsurprised to learn that many of the shortlisted authors already have multiple publications, some even have distinguished writing careers or have published with major presses. Of course, even these authors may be still disappointed not to win and, while they certainly won’t need me to ratify their ability, they can seek solace from the fact that all the works I read exhibited a real depth of craft and talent. So, to all the shortlisted authors I say this: keep going, keep going, keep going, there will be so much more to come.
The Winning Entry: Over the River and Stabbed to Death – Randy Osborne. Essay Collection.
This is an excellent collection of essays in a genre which is, and quite rightly too, enjoying a resurgence. Osborne writes with rich and poetic prose, presenting a set of lyrical ruminations from his youth with considerable aplomb. The essays are particularly impressive at drifting, almost stream-of-consciously, as the very structure of Osbornes’ prose pays homage to the serpentine movements of the memories he describes.
Although each essay has a discrete focus, Osborne segues effortlessly between tangential topics (in one moment moving from the horrors of a homophobic murder to the history of morel mushrooms in the space of a few lines, in another we shimmy from swimming across a lagoon to save a Wolfhound to his paraplegic father’s determination to commit suicide and then back in less than a page). Throughout the collection, Osborne traces and re-traces the threads of his past, topics which range from internecine family relationships to youthful court appearances, neighbourhood murders and arson attacks. And he does so with poignancy and an intense lyricism.
There is a deeply poetic quality to Osborne’s writing and his reflections throughout Over the River are in equal parts personal and philosophical, such as on his final observations on his father: “He simply wanted to close out for good the riddle of his loneliness, a need I have come to understand.” But Osborne is a skilled enough author that the personal subjects of his essays, topics which might have become melodramatic or claustrophobically insular in lesser hands, are handled in a manner that lends this collection a much broader and universal appeal. Chapeau Randy Osborne.
Highly Commended: Up in Michigan – Stefan Kiesbye. Short Story Collection.
A set of stories by a very talented author. From the first page, the quality of the writing made it clear I was in the hands of a consummate story teller (it did not surprise me one bit to learn afterwards that Kiesbye has already published several novels, perhaps most notably Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone which was named one of the best books of 2012). Up In Michigan tells a number of loosely linked stories centred around a strange fictional town, called Severe, which sits on the shores of the Great Lakes. And the name is of course intentional because severity is the central motif of this brooding collection; the severity of the town’s location, of its history, of its weather, of its dark cast of characters. This is a collection of oblique ghost stories, but ones which works less by traditional narrative methods and more by the building up of atmosphere and imagery, an aesthetic made clear from the off as we are first given the history of Severe’s forgotten plague of revenants and then introduced to its founding fathers, Finnish Immigrants who “castrated deer by biting off their balls”. As the collection progresses we are introduced to more of Severe’s residents, an off-kilter collection of loners and misfits, as story by story the dark and uncanny mood roils and thickens.
And all the while, in the background, we have the true and omnipresent protagonist of the collection – the town of Severe itself. I could quote any number of passages to evidence the quality of the writing, but perhaps this one exemplifies the clipped lucidity of Kiesbye’s prose:
“Oh?” she said. If she’d said anything more, I would have forgotten about it the next second — I was still caught up in the story of her kissing a ghost — but there was a small pause and she never turned to look at what shirt I’d been talking about. I waited, and she must have been waiting too. The water kept running but she’d stopped scrubbing her milk pot. Fine needles clogged my veins, making me sweat. I couldn’t feel the cereal bowl’s weight or shape anymore.
Highly Commended: Furnace Creek – Joseph Boone. Novel.
Furnace Creek impressed me first by the scale of its ambition and then, even further, by its execution. It is a 156,000 word re-working of Dickens' Great Expectations but set as an erotic bildungsroman-cum-picaresque adventure (and with a dose of mystery thrown in for good measure) set in the rural American South. Its narrator, Newt (who describes himself as a “Pip of a lad” – see what he did there?) is a gay adolescent growing up in rural Virginia.
The novel hooked me from its opening scene, where Newt is caught pleasuring himself in a bush by Zithra, a black maid-turned-convict, who then blackmails him into helping her escape. After a further erotic entanglement with a pair of siblings (the nephew and niece of a queer Ms. Havisham-esque bachelor), Newt is catapulted on a journey of moral and sexual discovery, encountering (and in the true picaresque style) a wide selection of characters from heroes to vagabonds and villains.
His travels take him from a prep school in New England to bohemian digs in Rome and on to Paris before finally back to Virginia where he at last comes of age, making peace with his life’s many expectations and disappointments. Boone does an impressive job in creating a narrative voice which combines (and at times surely apes) the high-blown and loquacious style of his Victorian muse with something also more authentically ‘Southern’. And, although Furnace Creek clearly follows a loose Dickensian template, a reader can enjoy it with or without having read ‘Great Expectations’ as it stands on its own two legs. All in all, a mightily impressive and expansive work.
Highly Commended: Gravity – Judith Serin. Short Story Collection.
Gravity is a collection of eight short stories, the final one being the collection’s set-piece – a titular novella of sixteen sections told from the focus of two female protagonists. The stories in this collection are all stories about obsessed women: women consumed by revenge, women caught in love triangles, and women often confounded by and even absent in sex. Serin is all too aware of the traps that society creates for women. But her protagonists are not simple victims. Rather they are all independent agents, ones who bring their own voice and their own foibles to the relationships they in which they find themselves.
But although they have agency they also have different levels of awareness, or lack of awareness, and so are also all, and to varying degrees, struggling and trying to escape. Gravity is a timely collection, and is reminiscent of other excellent collections which have come out in recent years and are centred on the female experience; Nicole Flattery’s Show Them A Good Time comes to mind, as does Leone Ross’s Come Let Us Sing Anyway – evoked in Serin’s wonderfully and subtly absurd sequence A Treasure.
Serin’s prose is sharp and richly textured, emotional without ever being maudlin, as can be seen here in the opening of the story Women in Jazz:
I lie in bed. This morning I slept with my lover. My lover. I turn the words over with my tongue like lemon candies. Delicious, adult words. I’m eighteen; my childhood breaks off and drops away from me like a coin tossed from the side of a boat. It sinks as I float away from it, lying on my back, looking up, erased of everything but this morning and him.
Here is an impressive collection by a writer from which we will certainly be hearing more.
Judge’s comments on the rest (in no particular order):
The Minister of Disturbances – Zeeshan Pathan. Poetry Collection.
Zeeshan Pathan is a poly-linguist (speaking English, Urdu, Turkish and Persian) and this is gleefully evident from the range of tone and form on show in The Minster of Disturbances. From the very beginning the voice here is bleak and startling: “He had asked the doctor /Who had been cutting /Into his skull with a scalpel /If something else might break /Inside the braincase”. The collection continues to shock, delight and surprise as it unfolds; covering topics from displacement and alienation to war and politics. Sometimes, and unsurprising giving Pathan’s linguistic influences, there are echoes of the defiant monologues of the great Iranian poets a lá Forough Farrokhzad; at other times there are shades of lyric stoicism or post-modern absurdity – but always there is imagery here that is fresh and original and voices which are assuredly Pathan’s own. This surety is evident throughout, but for me it was perhaps clearest in the poem 'My Heart Was Found in the Streets of Jerusalem': “My heart was found in the streets of Jerusalem—in the milk bowl of an alley cat. /My heart was lost between two lines of the same poem written in the time of the Romanovs. /My heart was a songbird trapped in a song that was circular like a wheel. /My heart was an ear cut from the furious head of a bard. /My heart was actually a tongue and a deep register of silence.”
The Other Left - Susan Wetmore. A Book in Verse.
Here is the work of a poet who has a talent for the lyric and epigrammatic, a collection of short and mainly single-word titled vignettes (moving from Haiku to quatrains to sonnet) covering love, loss the sublime and the pastoral. Sometimes Wetmore draws on the voices of the past, echoing the Victorian Lyrics “Whose lilacs bloomed as drab as dusty lace,/Dim clouds and murky rains as stale winds blew” or even at time the great Irish pastoralist Thomas Kinsella: “Rumbling, roaring, dark the garden grows./Flashing, thrashing, flat the garden's lain”– but she also brings her own too: “A shaded dent where his lips tuck their ends./So, there and there.” Ultimately, here is a poet of both deep-feeling and talent, although I think there was an opportunity missed to add a wider variety of voices and forms to this collection; for my money I would have liked an expanded range of styles and a teasing out of the subtle narrative thread that bubbles under the surface of what is a heart-felt collection. Wetmore has a fine talent for capturing the acuteness of feeling; I very much look forward to seeing what she will produce in the future.
Old Boston Road – Stephen Haven. Poetry Collection.
This is an accomplished collection which is impressively sure of itself. It primarily responds to – and if not pays homage then at least continues a conversation with – the Italian poet, film director and general enfant (homme?) terrible Pier Paolo Pasolini. However, the literary influences and nods run much wider than this; ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Philip Larkin and Henry Adams (and surely many others too subtle for my clumsy readings). The thematic concerns are equally wide-ranging; astrophysics, quantum mechanics, alienation, travel, love, religion and the search for lost time. A number of the poems here are very skilfully controlled, 'Rope Tied To A Song' and 'Old Story' being two of my favourites. None of the poems in the collection are anything other than the work of an accomplished writer, but Haven is perhaps at his best in when he moves away from his many literary influences and becomes more personal and narrative: “My father thought the/Anglican liturgy pure poetry, once,/300 people chanting in the multi-colors of the chancel, /Saying on cue We do! Though they might have answered/Otherwise in their own living rooms, together /They committed to many things, the dignity /Of every human being, the baby lifted high above /My father’s head, as in some ceremonial sense /Of his long-limbed, six foot three, a little thin /But with good bones, white-cassocked, black-haired /Public self, splash of a maroon stole.” - or when he embraces Pasolini’s spirit of iconoclasm and taboo: “After her second shot the artist starts to talk about /Cryonics of all things, the initiate of her boyfriend/Who attends such conferences…Freeze me, baby!/He once said to her, the height of their bodily passion.”
I, Steal – Linda Ravenswood. Poetry Collection.
An anarchic, vibrant, coruscating collection pulsing with deep pathos and scathing critique. The voice throughout is fresh and idiosyncratic, piling up clipped and daring vernaculars into poems which burst out as breathless monologues. And while the cumulative effect often seems almost extemporised, don’t be fooled; there is a real clarity of both craft and intent underlying everything that is written here. The vision throughout is crystal clear, as outlined in the two poems which address (what appears to be) Ravenswood’s own vision of poetry and what it should do: “The poet should know the land./ She should understand Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium”. Ravenswood does a particularly good line in the bathetic, moving throughout the collection from moments of wry and oblique humour to seething anger at a social injustices. This is perhaps best typified in her poem 'If Amy Winehouse': “if Amy Winehouse sang the James Bond theme song and if her teeth were set in her head just right and if she didn’t have that kernel of coke hanging off her nostril and if her body had been able to exist in a way that she could eat food and not know she had to throw it up to work / to be heard / to say / see me / and if she could live and sing out her gift / her creed so that it was regarded as beauty / as valuable / and that was meaningful and it inspired people / instead of having unsung songs / and another name / for the list of girls who can’t meet love or transgress opportunity”.
Clutching Pearls – Essays Obsessed – A. Loudermilk. Collected Essays.
As the title suggests, this is a collection of essays which deals with obsession, although the obsession here is delightfully two-fold; not only the obsessions of the subjects of each essay (ranging from Nina Simone and a dark but forgotten children’s poet to Truman Capote and zombies) but also the academic obsessions of the author himself. These essays revel in their erudition and are painfully well researched (complete with photographs and artefacts – one of my favourites being a comparison of a Black Friday Sale and a scene from George A. Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’). This was a strong set of essays written in meticulous prose and Loudermilk covers a wide and eclectic range of topics throughout, so stopping his form ever becoming stale. I particularly enjoyed two aspects of Clutching Pearls: firstly its unashamed dedication to scholarly erudition and secondly the moments when it transcended the mere biographical and used the subject of the essay to fuse personal introspection with a wider consideration of American society, such as in the following passage: “Postmodern zombie is a term that Steven Shaviro coined to describe Romero’s zombies—a near perfect allegory for capitalism, he claims, both excessive in desire for more than enough. The postmodern zombie’s desire to consume consume consume (thereby infecting all humankind) is not so different from the capitalist consumer’s desire for more more more (goods, wealth, resources, status symbols) … The postmodern zombie, for whom more is never enough, rises from the tombs of several monsters past: the voodoo zombie, the mummy, the vampire, and pod-people, all relevant in bodies neither alive nor dead, human nor inhuman, each an economically framed cautionary tale on uncanny legs.”
Unromantic Explanations of Everyday Life – Ruzena Zatko. Poetry and illustrations.
A real curio. Thirty-four short and (as suggested by the title) aphoristic verses, each one overlaid on a beautiful double-page colour spread, where the illustration captures an image from the printed poem. The central themes of this collection of what I might call (for want of a better phrase) ‘graphic-verse’ are love, loss and anguish. While it would be going too far to use the adjective ‘Blakean’, there was a refreshing quirkiness and originality here, and it was edifying to see an author committed to presenting their manuscript as both a literary and visual artefact.
DNA -The Story of the Muth Co.– Laurence Klavan. A Novel in Stories.
DNA charts the rise of a dark and mysterious company (called the Muth Co.) through a number of loosely connected stories, each centring on a different protagonist. The novel is best-described using the broad genre of dystopian sci-fi (Klavan himself tips a nod to the grand tradition of this genre by referencing HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau), and as the narrative progresses it is revealed that The Muth Co. are exploiting the DNA of celebrities for their own nefarious purposes, namely global domination. Klavan has an established track record in writing for young adults, something which is clear from the more fantastical elements on show in DNA. However he adds a further string to his bow here (and a string which I can only assume is new, given his previous audiences) by including undercurrents of dark violence and eroticism. The difficulty in writing under this dystopian umbrella is, of course, how an author might add something new to a genre that is so firmly established. Klavan solves this dilemma creatively, by using the structure of interconnecting stories rather than linear chapters in the traditional sense. This is successful in that it adds a sense of ingenuity and originality to the novel, although the vast array of characters can become dizzying and at times shifts the reader away from the unfolding narrative. All in all, DNA is a bold and creative foray into the genre by Klavan.