Costa Short Story Award 2013: And my vote goes to…

Well, I’ve had a blast reading through this year’s Costa Short Story Award shortlist. The journey has taken me among other places, from a logger’s camp in British Columbia to a sheep farm in Australia, via a basement workshop in Ireland and an apartment in the Iranian city of Tabriz. It’s been a cosmopolitan roller coaster ride, and with my feet now firmly planted back on terra firma, I thought I would summarise the shortlisted stories, and reveal who I think is worthy of this year’s £3,500 winner’s prize.

Firstly then, here’s a summary of my reviews of all of this year’s shortlist, with links leading to individual reviews:

  • Still Water, BC – “Altogether an accomplished story, and one that turns out memorable for a number of reasons.” – Rating: ★★★½☆
  • The Forgiveness Thing – “..a very dialogue driven tale, that appears to have more hidden between the lines than in the words themselves.” – Rating: ★★★☆☆
  • The Gun Shearer – “..a hugely satisfying story, that’s every bit as polished and as engaging as any I’ve read.” – Rating: ★★★★☆
  • The Keeper of the Jackalopes – “A straightforward and engaging story, told with much panache and creativity.” – Rating: ★★★★☆
  • The Old Man and the Suit – “Reeking with Chekhovian undertone, this tale is as beautiful as it’s melancholic.” – Rating: ★★★★☆
  • The Papakh Hat – “A rather poignant story, that pays tribute in some small way not only to those who suffered during the revolution in Iran, but to those who stood by their convictions.” – Rating: ★★★½☆

So that’s a rundown of my reviews of this year’s Costa Short Story Award shortlist, and what must be clear to all is that I’ve got three stories in the running for top position. And from these three I have to choose a single overall winner…*sighs*…which is no easy task, you know.

All three of the stories that have taken top points from me are worthy of taking the prize, and all for very different reasons. The Gun Shearer is beautifully told, and it comes with an ending that’s unforgettable. The Keeper of the Jackalopes stands as a perfect lesson in straightforward yet inventive storytelling. And, The Old Man and the Suit is just beautifully Chekhovian, in every sense of the word. Which to pick? Well, as good as The Keeper of the Jackalopes and The Old Man and the Suit are, it’s The Gun Shearer that I just can’t shake from my head. There’s a particular act of symbolism in the story that has left something of an imprint on my brain – always one of the ‘holy grails’ that the writer seeks in short form – and so for this reason I’m choosing The Gun Shearer as my overall winner.

Now, with my choice of winner announced, I thought as the shortlist for the Costa Short Story Award is presented anonymously that I would have a stab at guessing the gender of each author. I’m sure to be wrong with every one of these guesses, but I thought it would be an interesting exercise nonetheless, especially when so few literary awards have entries judged upon anonymously. So here’s what I think (and we’ll find out for sure after voting closes on 17th January):

  • Still Water, BC: Male (I found it tough deciding on this one but I went male in the end, mainly because the logging camp in this story is so testosterone oozing – even if it has to be in order to make the story work).
  • The Forgiveness Thing: Female (there’s a certain intimacy in this story that strongly suggests that it was written by a woman).
  • The Gun Shearer: Female (again, there’s a particular intimacy in this story – even stronger than with The Forgiveness Thing – that suggests a female author).
  • The Keeper of the Jackalopes: Male (the relationship between father and daughter in this story is such that it feels as though it were written by a man).
  • The Old Man and the Suit: Male (another difficult one to work out, but I went for male solely because of the dominance of male characters).
  • The Papakh Hat: Male (this one could be written by a female but my intuition is very much pointing towards a male writer).

So, it’s over to you now I guess. Remember that voting on this year’s Costa Short Story Award shortlist closes on 17th January, so you still have plenty of time to read (or listen to) all six shortlisted stories and cast your own vote if you haven’t done so already. If you haven’t then I hope that my own views haven’t swayed your decision in any way. I have simply posted reviews of each story and my choice of winner solely to open a dialogue on this year’s shortlist.

Now that this dialogue is open I hope very much that you’ll pass on your own thoughts and impressions of the shortlist, and perhaps reveal your own choice of overall winner. Any other thoughts or comments then please leave them below.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. Hey Rob, I find myself agreeing with you on the star-rating of every story. But personally I’m giving my vote to The Keeper of the Jackalopes. I loved the father-daughter relationship, their dialog, the grittiness, and many sweet little bits of joy-in-language, like “Clary grins, pretty sure she’ll be a pumpkin her whole fudging life.”

    I liked The Gun Shearer a lot, but felt it was a bit weakened by the fact that we’re implicitly asked to believe that pretty much nothing happened in this woman’s life for the 30 year gap in the story.

    Like you, I’d give 4 stars to The Old Man and the Suit as well. It’s wonderfully Chekhovian, as you say, though perhaps a trifle cliche’d by today’s standards. Chekhov was a long time ago, after all.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Dear Karl,
      Thank you for stopping by and leaving your valuable input. You know, I came close to picking The Keeper of the Jackalopes as my overall winner. I just felt it so honest and true, and especially in the father/daughter relationship. It was ‘painted’ so beautifully. I love the irony in the story too i.e. they needed supermarkets – or rather the dumpsters behind the supermarkets – in order to survive, and yet it was a supermarket developer who was trying to push them off their land.

      As for the Gun Shearer, I get your point, but I do think the story is viable. Some folks never have high ambitions and they become stuck in the same situation their entire lives. Also, that’s a hell of a traumatic episode the woman went through, and I think it’s realistic to think that it would never have left her, especially with her living such a banal and isolated life.

      The Old Man and the Suit? The story didn’t feel cliche’d to me at all. But then for me Chekhov is as alive today as he was 100+ years ago 🙂
      Anyway, a fascinating conversation. And lovely to hear your impressions, Karl.

  2. Hello Rob
    Interesting comments so far and it’s a great way of encouraging people to read the stories and make up their minds. The three stories you rated highest, and which have been so far discussed, are all well-crafted and have something individual to offer. But for me, The Papakh Hat is also well-crafted – a driving narrative, a subtly nuanced relationship between two adults(rather than an adult-child or a child-coming-of-age relationship – I love children, but it’s refreshing to see the exploration of an adult-adult relationship, and a positive one at that, not one where they do, or are out to do, each other harm.
    The descriptions also serve a purpose other than just description: ‘There’s been a fresh snowfall. It lies on the bank, blurring the lines of the turret and the gun barrel, softening it with a mound of vanilla ice cream with a long-handled spoon. But it’s still a tank.’ And the cultural stuff isn’t just there to add colour – Persepolis and the Sufi poetry and what they mean to the two characters are woven into their relationship. Also the story is contemporary – the Disappeared, the turmoil in the Middle East, discrimination and victimisation of one group for one reason or another – all still with us.
    I think short stories for competitions can sometimes wear their short story ‘bibs and tuckers’ rather obviously – but The Papakh Hat doesn’t do that.
    Thanks for the forum, Rob.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Dear Liz,
      How lovely of you to take the time to stop by and offer your thoughts. I agree that The Papakh Hat is worthy of its place in the shortlist, but for me there were stories that rang truer to my own personal tastes.

      I love how you chose to quote the description of the tank resembling vanilla ice cream. I remember pausing at this just to put the stunning visual – so juxtaposed in description – into my head. And I agree, the story painted such a positive relationship between partners, although perhaps not so positive as they were split between staying in the country or leaving.

      And nicely pointed out on the love of the ancient and of Sufi poetry being interwoven into the relationship. I’d read but hadn’t picked up on this to quite the same depth, until you mentioned it.

      In reality it could be any one of the six that triumphs, right? A testament to the quality of both entry and of judging. I look forward to discussing the winner with you in January, Liz.

  3. Hi Rob
    Appreciate your really quick reply to my comments.
    I made a bit of a cock-up on the quote front! It should be ‘ There’s been a fresh snowfall. It lies on the tank, blurring the lines of its turret and gun barrel, softening it into a mound of vanilla ice cream with a long-handled spoon. But it’s still a tank.’
    You’re right – any of the stories could win – it’s a matter of personal choice.


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