The Authors’ Club Best First Novel shortlist has just been announced, not one that’s likely to send many readers rushing to check out who’s on it but it’s well worth a look. The prize was established in 1954 and although many of the winners have sunk into obscurity some went on to have a very respectable degree of success. Brian Moore, Alan Sillitoe and Jennifer Johnston were early winners while Dan Rhodes, Mick Jackson and Susan Fletcher are more recent successes. It’s chosen from reports submitted by club members rather than publishers. Twelve of the submissions are put to a judging panel for the shortlist then it’s the job of a guest adjudicator to pick the winner. This year’s shortlist is a lively, varied and interesting one, but then they usually are. I’m always on the look out for interesting debuts and so it’s a prize close to my heart.
Tess Callahan’s April and Oliver is a debut which has been sitting on my ‘to be read’ shelves for quite some time. I’m usually a sucker for small town American novels but this one has such an insipid cover that everything else seemed more interesting. A shame, as it turns out to be an enjoyable and absorbing novel about the attraction between two step cousins – April, who’s abuse by a family friend has left her unable to have a relationship with any man other than one who beats her and Oliver, a thoroughly nice man engaged to a thoroughly nice woman but unable to shrug off his feelings for April. Nothing to set the world on fire but it’s deserving of a wider audience than its dismal Amazon ranking suggests it has. First novels are difficult to sell unless they’re in the media spotlight, awarded the Costa First Novel Award or the subject of an expensive marketing campaign usually reserved for big names. Readers have a limited amount of cash and want to feel sure that they’re buying something they can look forward to, the safest bet being a track record. But publishers could help by packaging a first novel as if they had faith in it otherwise it’s likely to sink without trace. If you want to see a debut novel with a jacket which shouts ‘pick up this book’, take a look at Warpaint by Alicia Foster. Set in the dark days of 1942, it throws light on the rarely explored work of women artists and the world of wartime propaganda, both covert and public, all with the pace of a page turning thriller. You really can judge this book by its excellent cover.