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Guardian First Book Award Shortlist announced

Our summary of this years five contending debut novels

Now in its fourteenth year, the Guardian first book award has recently announced its shortlist, with a winner due to be declared on the 29th November.

The annual prize offers a significant platform for debut works to reach a wider audience, albeit this year's line-up features several well-established writers. Two of the shortlisted authors are multi-award winning journalists, and one book has already been hugely successful internationally.

Nonetheless, as a celebration of the breadth and quality of new literature, the shortlist offers an unrivalled suggestion for your reading list. Here’s our guide to this years five contenders:


Katherine Boo – Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Katherine Boo’s career has already racked up a host of prestigious literary awards – including a Pulitzer and a MacArthur 'Genius' grant. However, these so far have been awarded in response to her journalism. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is her first book, although it draws almost entirely from her investigative reporting.

The book is an account of several years Boo spent living amongst families in the slums of Mumbai. She follows local lives, meticulously charting her research via translators, recording the daily existence and struggles of life amongst India's poorest people. Throughout her first-hand witness account weaves the persistant question which she has devoted her career to understanding - why, and how, do some overcome poverty?


Chad Harbach – The Art of Fielding

Perhaps the most familiar title on this years shortlist, Harbach’s book has already received popular success in his native America. The already significant media attention on the novel was bolstered by its appealing underdog story – ‘I was 22 years old and just out of college, with a vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, but with no idea of how to do it’ says Harbach, who then famously worked on the novel for a decade, struggling with finances, before his agent ignited a bidding war over the debut resulting in a $650,000 (£406,000) advance.

Perhaps the only coming-of-age story to be set so exclusively on the baseball pitch, The Art of Fielding slightly divided British reviewers with its high-minded aspirations and uncompromisingly technical baseball details. Nonetheless, the book was widely acclaimed upon its release, notably being included on the New York Times ‘10 best books of 2011’ list.


Lindsey Hilsum: Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution

The Arab Springs, although saturating much international news coverage of the past year, have so far had little dent on the world of books, and understandably so – few people are really in a suitable position to write about them just yet. The revolutionary participants have much more serious things to concern themselves with than publishing deals, and international outsiders lack the factual knowledge and cultural understanding to write worthwhile accounts.

Lindsey Hilsum, however, as Channel 4’s distinguished international editor, is in perhaps in one of the only suitable positions to write an account of the Libyan uprising. Her uncompromising reporting on the events led to wide acclaim for Channel 4, and her book has combined vivid narratives with sober political analysis of the events leading up to the downfall and death of Muammar Gaddafi.


Kerry Hudson – Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma

‘I honestly thought the novel would never be published, which meant that each day I wrote with as much honesty as I could stand, as well as I was capable of, and with a blissful lack of self-consciousness’ describes Hudson of her debut novel.

This tale of life hovering just along the bread-line in a Glaswegian council flat is told by a whimsical child narrator, and caught instant critical attention for the refreshing originality of its clear-eyed, tragicomic prose. Decisively skirting the dangers of misery-lit, critics note that ‘Hudson avoids the usual sentimental clichés and gives us, without a shred of hipster cynicism, the hope and tough warmth for which she has such a sharp eye’.


Kevin Powers – The Yellow Birds

Powers served in Iraq with the US army for two years and this, his debut novel, is a response to his first, devastating look at war.

Acclaimed by critics from all sides for his naturally poetic grasp of language, the book is hailed for its lyrical handling of a devastating subject. Drawing heavily on first hand experience, the book is propelled forth by criss-crossing storylines of young soldiers numbed by what they have seen and trying, in their own ways, to come to terms with it. Already championed by such literary heavyweights as Tom Wolfe and Colm Toibin, this short work resonates ‘strong on claustrophobia, chaos and constant fear’.


Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.