Costa judge laments a weak year for fiction

If Ian McEwan and David Mitchell's publishers were hoping to forget their Man Booker Prize snub earlier this year, then they will find cold comfort in the Costa award shortlist, revealed yesterday, which failed to feature either of their latest novels.

The four works to be selected for the novel award, which this year had the highest-ever number of 168 entries, were Louise Doughty's Whatever You Love, about a mother's quest for revenge after her daughter is run over by a car; The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale, which explores the moral dilemmas and consequences of its characters; Maggie O'Farrell's 1950s story The Hand That First Held Mine; and Paul Murray's Skippy Dies.

Murray was shortlisted in 2003 for the Whitbread First Novel Award – as the Costa Award was previously known – and his latest novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize this year.

Jonathan Ruppin, web editor at Foyles bookshop, who was one of three judges for the novel award, said the four books on the list were "fantastic stories that really gripped you and with characters that really engaged the reader". But he added that he felt it had not been a particularly strong year for fiction. "We were not spoiled for choice in terms of books that were serious contenders," he said.

Reflecting on the omission of Howard Jacobson's Man Booker prize-winner The Finker Question and Mitchell's work, he said they had both certainly been contenders, but their work was too cerebral to recommend to the masses. The prize has veered towards more commercial reads in recent times.

Among shortlisted works in other categories was Sam Willett's debut poetry collection, New Light for the Old Dark, which took him 10 years to complete and which incorporated some poems revealing his experience as a former heroin addict.

Yesterday, he said he was delighted by the nomination and revealed how his entry into professional poetry writing had been a serendipitous one. One of his former girlfriends had sent off one of his poems to a competition, which he won. Poems which dealt with his heroin addiction comprised about 10 per cent of the collection, he added.

"I was born in 1962 and I became infatuated with drugs. I was taking my mum's valium at the age of 11. I had dabbled for years but it was in my late 30s that I became a junkie. The addiction lasted long enough to blow up my life," he said. Meanwhile, the first draft of Lucy Christopher's book Flyaway, shortlisted in the children's book category and featuring an unlikely mix of terminal illness and bird migration, was written when she was in her early 20s and enrolled onto a one-year creative writing course.

"My stepfather was very ill with cancer and I was trying my hardest to write but I couldn't have any ideas.

"I was ill and switched on the radio to hear a programme on migrating Whooper swans," she said.

"I started listening and felt the idea of the long journey that these birds take and the long journey that is a long-term illness, has similarities."

The shortlists

Novel award

Louise Doughty: Whatever You Love

Nigel Farndale: The Blasphemer

Maggie O'Farrell: The Hand That First Held Mine

Paul Murray: Skippy Dies

First novel award

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night

Nikesh Shukla: Coconut Unlimited

Aatish Taseer: The Temple-Goers

Simon Thirsk: Not Quite White

Biography award

Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: a life of Montaigne in one question and 20 attempts at an answer

Michael Frayn: My Father's Fortune

Edmund de Waal: The Hare with Amber Eyes

Poetry award

Roy Fisher: Standard Midland

Robin Robertson: The Wrecking Light

Jo Shapcott: Of Mutability

Sam Willetts: New Light for the Old Dark

Children's book award

Lucy Christopher: Flyaway

Sharon Dogar: Annexed

Jonathan Stroud: Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon

Jason Wallace: Out of Shadows