Four female writers dominate honours in Costa Book Awards

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The Independent Culture

A grieving mother, a postwoman, an anti-war comedienne and a celebrated poet were yesterday named as category winners at the prestigious Costa Book Awards, which were dominated by female writing talent.

Ann Kelley, who was among four women on the five-strong list of winners, said the central character in The Bower Bird, which won the children's book award, was inspired by her late son, Nathan. He was born prematurely and not expected to survive for longer than a week due to a heart defect, but lived until the age of 24.

She began her trilogy, of which The Bower Bird is the second instalment, in part, she said, to recover from his loss. Nathan died 22 years ago, a week after receiving a heart and lung transplant.

"The central character is a girl called Gussie, who has the same heart disease [as Nathan] and has to have a heart and lung transplant," she said. "When I started writing the story about Gussie, I was stuck in a cliff-side house in Cornwall in a dreadful winter, because I was ill. I began seeing everything through Nathan's eyes. He made the absolute best of his life. I wanted to capture his spirit in her character. It was not supposed to help me grieve, but it has."

Alison Kennedy, who has published four novels under her initials, A L Kennedy, is also a comedienne and an ordained minister. She won the best novel award for Day, which focuses on the turmoil inside a Second World War bomber, as a response to the war in Iraq.

Kennedy, 42, from Glasgow, said: "We are currently in a different war with parallels, but it does not have the moral high ground so a huge amount of money has been spent... while the NHS and the education sector is going to rot," she said.

Meanwhile, Catherine O'Flynn, who took the first novel award, worked as a postwoman while writing What Was Lost, which is set in a shopping centre. "I had quite low expectations of it being published," she said. "It is based on experiences that maybe a lot of us have, where we go from being children with a lot of energy to losing our way as an adult."

Jean Sprackland, who joined a poetry course after the birth of her child at the age of 30, picked up the poetry award for her third collection, Tilt, while the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore took the biography award for Young Stalin. The five writers, who each receive 5,000 for reaching this stage of the competition, will now compete for the final 50,000 prize, the winner of which will be announced on 22 January.

The winners

* Children's book award: Ann Kelley; The Bower Bird; Based on son who died at 24.

* Best novel: Alison Kennedy; Day; Focuses on inner turmoil of a WWII bomber, as a response to the invasion of Iraq.

* First novel: Catherine O'Flynn; What Was Lost; Set in a shopping centre. "We go from being children with a lot of energy to losing our way as an adult, and finding ourselves in a job or a relationship we didn't think we'd be in," she said.

* Poetry: Jean Sprackland; Tilt; A powerful sense of the miraculous made manifest in the ordinary.

* Biography: Simon Sebag Montefiore; Young Stalin; A prequel to an earlier work.