Former waitress on shortlist for Whitbread

A 12-year-old girl's awakening, the fate of Kashmir, the mental rationale of suicides and a mixed-race clairvoyant growing up in a town called Eureka are all in contention for the 2005 Whitbread Book Awards. And that's just the novels.

Elsewhere, in the biography section, a life of the Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw battles it out with Henri Matisse, the celebrated nature writer Richard Mabey, and a homeless psychotic thief called Stuart.

Eclectic is the word for the Whitbread shortlists. And when it comes to the fiction contenders, controversy is never far away. Every year, the judges seem to take a perverse delight in ignoring or downplaying the front-runners in the Man Booker Prize (their deadly rival, announced two months earlier). This year, Salman Rushdie and Nick Hornby - ignored in the final round-up by the Booker judges - are in hot competition with the shortlisted Ali Smith (The Accidental) and the dark horse Christopher Wilson, who was up for the Whitbread once before, for his novel Mischief.

Booker front-runners such as Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes and (the eventual winner) John Banville are simply not in the running.

For Rachel Zadok, a contender for the first novel award, it's all a bit unreal. The 33-year-old South African was a beneficiary of the Richard & Judy show and its "How to Get Published" slot. She was in the last five, winnowed from 46,000 entries; and though she failed to win, she was offered a contract and a £20,000 advance by Pan Macmillan.

Her book, Gem Squash Tokoloshe, follows a young girl growing up during the height of apartheid unrest in South Africa, and took three years to write. "It was a bit unreal when I found out I was on the shortlist," she said. "I was told I couldn't tell anyone when all I wanted to do was shout it from the rooftops." Zadok was working as a waitress when she wrote the book, and presumably is now dreaming of the £25,000 that may be hers when the overall Book of the Year is announced on 24 January.

Two of her rivals for the first novel award, Tash Aw and Diana Evans, are graduates of the East Anglia creative writing factory. Aw's novel is set in Malaysia, where he was brought up, Evans's in north London - she was acclaimed on publication as "the new literary voice of multicultural Britain" and is this year's Monica Ali. Another contender is Peter Hobbs, a former foreign office executive who became a writer while recovering from a long illness, with his novel A Short Day Dying.

A strong contender for the overall prize must be Hilary Spurling's ground-breaking life of Matisse, a painter much derided (and oddly under-biographised) in his own country.

The Whitbread, however, has a famous weakness for "human interest" stories of mental or physical breakdown. So Alexander Masters's story of Stuart, the homeless but charismatic street casualty, and Richard Mabey's Nature Cure, a memoir of how his chronic depression was lifted by rediscovering his love of the natural world, are both hot contenders.

In other categories, the poet David Harsent has already won the Forward Prize for his collection Legion, a disjoined series of fragments and snapshots from an unnamed conflict. But he will have a fight on his hands against Christopher Logue, whose Cold Calls is the second-to-last of his six translations from The Iliad, all rapturously received.

The children's list is dominated by Geraldine McCaughrean, who has won the award three times already. The White Darkness concerns a girl called Sym who is obsessed with Captain Titus Oates the late Antarctic hero.

It's 20 years since the genre heats for the Whitbread Book of the Year were first announced in 1985, and they have drawn predictable tuts of disapprobation every year - for how can you hope to compare the relative merits of a novel, a first novel, a collection of poetry, a biography and a children's book in a way that makes any critical sense?

Nevertheless, the winners in each category (who receive £5,000 apiece) will be judged for the overall Whitbread Book of the Year.

Whitbread Book Awards 2005 shortlists

* 2005 WHITBREAD NOVEL AWARD

Nick Hornby A Long Way Down (Viking)

Salman Rushdie Shalimar The Clown (Jonathan Cape)

Ali Smith The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton)

Christopher Wilson The Ballad of Lee Cotton (Little, Brown)

* 2005 WHITBREAD FIRST NOVEL AWARD

Tash Aw The Harmony Silk Factory (Harper Perennial)

Diana Evans 26a (Chatto & Windus)

Peter Hobbs The Short Day Dying (Faber and Faber)

Rachel Zadok Gem Squash Tokoloshe (Pan Macmillan)

* 2005 WHITBREAD BIOGRAPHY AWARD

Nigel Farndale Haw-Haw (Macmillan)

Richard Mabey Nature Cure (Chatto & Windus)

Alexander Masters Stuart: A Life Backwards (Fourth Estate)

Hilary Spurling Matisse The Master (Hamish Hamilton)

* 2005 WHITBREAD POETRY AWARD

David Harsent Legion (Faber and Faber)

Christopher Logue Cold Calls (Faber and Faber)

Richard Price Lucky Day (Carcanet)

Jane Yeh Marabou (Carcanet)

* 2005 WHITBREAD CHILDREN'S BOOK AWARD

Frank Cottrell Boyce Framed (Macmillan)

Geraldine McCaughrean The White Darkness (Oxford University Press)

Hilary McKay Permanent Rose (Hodder Headline)

Kate Thompson The New Policeman (Bodley Head)

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