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Whitbread Awards Honor 5 Authors

Winners Now Vie for Book of the Year

By Hephzibah Anderson
Bloomberg News
Friday, January 7, 2005; Page C08

The winners in five categories of the 2004 Whitbread Book Awards were announced in London yesterday.

The five authors are Andrea Levy in the novel category for "Small Island"; Susan Fletcher in first novels for "Eve Green"; John Guy in biography for "My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots"; Michael Symmons Roberts in poetry for "Corpus"; and Geraldine McCaughrean in children's literature for "Not the End of the World."

Each of the five receive a little over $9,000, and are now in the running for the Whitbread Book of the Year award, to be announced Jan. 25. That carries a prize of about $47,000.

The awards, honoring books by U.K.- and Ireland-based writers published over the past 12 months, are a fixture on the literary calendar. Although not as lucrative as the Orange Prize or as prestigious as the Man Booker, they are among the most peculiar of British book awards, pitting the winners of five distinct genres against one another.

"Our final judges will have a really tough time selecting just one from these five for the title of Whitbread Book of the Year," said Alan Parker, chief executive of the London-based operator of restaurants and hotels. "But it all makes for an exciting awards ceremony later on this month."

Levy's "Small Island" won last year's Orange Prize. The novel offers a humane, humorous take on the troubled infancy of multicultural Britain, opening in 1948 and focusing on the relationship between two couples -- one white, one black.

It's a subject loaded with personal significance for Levy, whose parents were West Indians who arrived in postwar Britain only to face hostility and an economic climate as chilly as the winters.

The awards' sole nonfiction category, biography, yielded a shortlist with two notable omissions: Jonathan Coe's "Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson" and Robert McCrum's "Wodehouse: A Life." Among those that made the cut were "V.S. Pritchett" by Jeremy Treglown and "Stephen Spender" by John Sutherland.

The prize went to Guy, a Cambridge academic, for "My Heart Is My Own," his scholarly yet readable biography of one of history's most tragic heroines, Mary Queen of Scots.

"Corpus" by Symmons Roberts, a radio writer and documentary filmmaker, focuses on the human body and is influenced by the unraveling of DNA.

McCaughrean's "Not the End of the World" is an imaginative and unsentimental retelling of the story of Noah's Ark and the flood. She beat three others, including Meg Rosoff's acclaimed "How I Live Now," whose Manhattanite teen heroine finds herself stranded in London when an unnamed aggressor invades.

Upset also came in the first-novel category, where Susanna Clarke's much-hyped "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," a baggy historical epic that reads like a cross between Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling, was beaten by a quietly published debut book about family secrets.

Laden with Celtic whimsy, Fletcher's "Eve Green" fuses a brooding meditation on the Welsh childhood of its pregnant heroine with the hunt for an abducted girl.

The Whitbread is frequently lambasted for its celebrity judges (this year's Book of the Year panel features actor Hugh Grant) and for pitting apples against pears. How can a fable for 10-year-olds be weighed against a collection of hard-hitting verse, or a college professor's heavyweight biography be compared with a first novel whose author has just graduated?

It's impossible, which perhaps makes the Whitbread one of the most honest prizes around: Ultimately, it all rests on the judges' personal preferences.

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