McEwan seeks atonement with Whitbread win

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The Independent Culture

Ian McEwan, denied this year's Booker prize, began his assault on the other main British book award when his chart-topping novel Atonement was shortlisted in the Whitbread Book Awards.

McEwan competes in the fiction category, which in January will give £30,000 to the winner. The judging panels have also chosen books by favourite authors such as Wendy Cope, Philip Pullman and Terry Jones. But such figures as Seamus Heaney, Antonia Fraser and the luckless Beryl Bainbridge have failed to please the judges.

The awards have to compete for attention on a media calendar that seems to acquire more black-tied, frilly-frocked evenings of professional backslapping with each passing year. In the struggle between Whitbread and Booker to rate as the premier writers' award, Whitbread has notched up one gain and one loss. The gain is that its awards deliver a generous purse of £50,000: £5,000 for the category winners, and £25,000 for the overall winner. The bad news is that the Whitbread ceremony will not be televised. The BBC, which has renewed its coverage of the Booker, has deemed that one literary shindig a year is the most that viewers will appreciate. Even the Booker presentation, last month, picked up miserable ratings of less than one million.

The Whitbread fiction shortlist – won last year by Matthew Kneale's English Passengers – echoes the Booker in its choice of Atonement and Andrew Miller's Oxygen. It also corrects a Booker omission in selecting Helen Dunmore's superb novelThe Siege – a harrowing tale of civilians in war. Patrick Neate's novel of black music, slavery and migration, Twelve Bar Blues, is the wild card.

The debut novel shortlist includes two especially ambitious works. Sid Smith, a former Independent journalist, brings China's Cultural Revolution to life in Something Like a House, while Will Eaves shows maturity beyond his years in his psycho-drama, The Oversight.

Serious biography had a thin time this year: a result in part, of the attention lavished on celebrity memoirs. The upshot is a solid shortlist perhaps over-full of familiar subjects: Flaubert, Boswell and Vermeer. Only Diana Souhami really rings the changes on the genre with her imaginative Pacific quest for the original "Robinson Crusoe", Alexander Selkirk.

For the children's award, the final volume of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, looks to be the favourite – despite the presence of Terry Jones with The Lady and the Squire.

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