Books, reading & writing

The Shelfies

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As I was watching the always enjoyable Kermode Awards (Oscar who?) on BBC 2’s The Culture Show earlier in the week (Unfortunately no longer on Iplayer but a round up is available here), it struck me that while film awards cover a whole range of differing aspects (Best Actor/Actress, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Special Effects, Best Costume etc), book awards tend to just be given out for Best Book (i.e. entire book: plot, story, characters, setting, everything, the whole kit and caboodle), albeit split into different genres. This seems a bit unfair to me.


Early last year I read Stephen King’s On Writing (If, like me, you dream of being a writer buy it. It is the only book on how to be a writer you will ever need). In the introduction, King explains how the motivation to write the book came from a conversation with fellow author Amy Tan. She and King knew each other through their band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, and one evening before a gig he asked her if there was one question she was never asked during the Q-and-A that followed her appearances at book events. She replied ‘No one ever asks about the language.’


That comment stuck with me, but now I am just starting to realise how true it is. Books can be good or bad, some are great and deserve to be recognised as so. But surely that isn’t only true of whole books. Parts of books – characters, scenes, setting, narrative voice, metaphors and similes, descriptions and dialogue – the individual bones of the fossil, as King might say, surely they deserve to be celebrated just as much. Why? Well I could give you lots of reasons, but I’ll stick with just one, the main one, and ultimately the only important one anyway: because it’s fun to do. We find joy in books, in the parts as well as in the whole, and I think that joy should be spread as far as possible.


So, without further ado I present the first inaugural Shelfies (and explaining the rules doesn’t count as ‘ado’. I looked it up. So don’t get shirty. Or jumpery, or scarfy or socky or tartan trousery either).


The Rules


As these are my personal awards, and as I don’t know anyone who only reads books published in the current year, the eligibility criteria is very simple: All books I have read since November 2013. This is mainly because this time frame is recent enough that I still remember my experience when reading the books. Fiction and Non-fiction are included, as are all genres.

So the eligible books are:


Letters of Note (By Shaun Usher)

The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear (By Walter Moers)

John Dies at the End (By David Wong)

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude Don’t Touch It (By David Wong)

Brave New World (By Aldous Huxley)

1984 (By George Orwell)

Empire Antarctica (By Gavin Francis)

The Fifth Elephant (By Terry Pratchett)

Space Captain Smith (By Toby Smith)

Slaughterhouse 5 (By Kurt Vonnegut)

The Dead Zone (By Stephen King)


As for categories, for this first Shelfies I have chosen 6 main awards and 1 special ‘Best Author’ award. The main categories include a winner and, where it’s really close, some will have a runner-up. The ‘Best Author’ category is a chance to recognise an author who, whether through their books, appearances, social media etc, best exemplifies the joy reading brings. They do not have to be an author whose book I have read recently (although probably will be).

So the categories are:

Best Character

Best Villain

Best Design (cover, layout etc)

Best Dialogue

Best Setting

Best Author


I think this will work best if I go with my gut reactions, so: red carpet rolled out, statues polished, curtain up, ShowTime!


And the winners are:


Best Character 

Winner:                Igor (The Fifth Elephant).

Which Igor? Igor of course. The grateful undead, more loyal than Lassie, more heart than a butcher’s haggis mixer (just don’t ask him where he got them all), he is a perfect understated hero (my favourite kind). I would say give him a hand, but he’s probably already got a whole collection of them pickling away somewhere in the cellar.


Runner-up:         John (John Dies at the End)

This was nearly a dead heat between two other John Dies at the End characters (Amy and Molly the dog), but I’ve picked John for his ability to turn any situation into a joke, no matter how terrifying, and for the chapter where David, our narrator, retells events as reported to him by John, which had me crying with laughter the whole way through. Yes, he’s juvenile, lazy, unreliable and dead at various points in the book, but when you need someone to crack evil spider demons with a chair WWE style, while shouting out rubbish puns, he’s your man.


Best Villain

Winner:                O’Brien (1984)

Most villains are content to just defeat their opponents. What makes O’Brien stand out is that he doesn’t stop there. In the cells of the Ministry of Love he crushes Winston Smith completely, he squeezes the hope out of him with that grinding boot, leaving him an empty shell, a husk. Now that’s evil.


Runner-up:         The Troglotroll (The 131/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear)

Is he truly a villain? Hard to say, it’s in his nature after all. One thing you can say: Don’t even think about trusting him.


Best Design

Winner:                Letters of Note (By Shaun Usher)

More than a book, this is a treasure trove, and the love of its author for its material is evident in every detail. The cover, the pages, the layout, the photographs, the size and weight, right down to the blue ribbon bookmark, it is pretty much perfect.


Best Dialogue

Winner:                John Dies at the End (By David Wong)

It’s a difficult thing for a book to be terrifying, darkly disturbing and hilarious all at the same time, but in John Dies at the End, David Wong (real name Jason Pargin) has succeeded on all points and I think it is the quality of the dialogue that really stands out for me. Why? Because Wong writes dialogue that reflects how people actually talk, or at least how the people I know talk. When you’re trying to be romantic it’s clumsy and at least two shades from perfect, when it’s deep it’s deep in a way that relates to characters’ own lives and cultural points of reference, and when you’re faced with certain death at the hands of the devil the first thing your tongue reaches for isn’t going to be an inspiration ‘this is our Independence Day!’ style speech, but it might just be a joke about Satan’s mum.


Best Setting

Winner:                Empire Antarctica (By Gavin Francis)

Throughout his diary of a frozen winter spent in Britain’s most remote Antarctic research station, Gavin Francis gives us insight into the lives of both his human colleagues and his emperor penguin neighbours. But the real star of his book is the silent, white continent itself. Sometimes haunting, sometimes isolating, sometimes joyous, always dangerous, the landscapes and skyscapes of the South Pole are evoked so completely that you can’t help but be captivated by its great white expanse. The contradiction of the place is laid bare: there is truly nothing there, and that nothing is truly beautiful.


Best Author

Winner:                Shaun Usher

Some people might say the first Best Author winner at the Shelfies is not actually an author. Letters of Note is, afterall, a collection of other people’s writing. It’s a good thing then than what ‘some people’ say is usually a load of old tosh. I have been a regular visitor to the Letters of Note blog for at least a year and eagerly followed the progress of the book through Shaun’s updates. There were delays and set backs, but what was undeinable was that throughout this process his passion for language and the written word shone through. Here is someone doing what they love, loving what they are doing, making a great success of it, and making lots of people very happy in the process. As Stephen King and Amy Tan would say, the language is important. So are the people who champion it, in all its forms. Shaun Usher is such a person and I am grateful to him for letting us share that passion.


Those are my choices. What about you? What would your categories be, and who would win?


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