Paul Murray and Fern Brady win inaugural Nero book awards | Books

Paul Murray and Fern Brady win inaugural Nero book awards | Books

Booker prize shortlisted author Paul Murray and comedian Fern Brady have been announced as the winners of their categories in the inaugural Nero book awards.

Irish writer Murray topped the fiction category for his novel The Bee Sting, while Brady’s memoir Strong Female Character was chosen by the judges as the best in the nonfiction category. Close to Home by Michael Magee and The Swifts by Beth Lincoln have been crowned winners of the debut fiction and children’s fiction categories respectively.

Quick Guide

Nero book awards category winners 2023


Children’s fiction

The Swifts by Beth Lincoln, illustrated by Claire Powell (Puffin)

Debut fiction

Close To Home by Michael Magee (Hamish Hamilton) 


The Bee Sting by Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton) 


Strong Female Character by Fern Brady (Brazen) 

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The Nero book awards were launched in May last year, just under a year after Costa abruptly scrapped its book awards after 50 years. The new prize aims to celebrate the “best reads of the year” by writers based in the UK and Ireland. The category winners have been chosen by judges including the writers Sara Collins, Sarfraz Manzoor, Anthony Quinn and Dave Rudden. The four writers will each receive £5,000, and are now in contention for the £30,000 Nero Gold prize, judged by a panel chaired by Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo.

“At a time when literature is under threat from the addictive distractions of social media and the internet, literary prizes not only celebrate individual writers and elevate careers, but draw attention to a beautiful art form that requires and rewards sustained concentration and engagement with words, other people’s lives, and the imagination,” said Evaristo.

The Bee Sting beat Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton, Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan and Fifteen Wild Decembers by Karen Powell to win the fiction category. The judges praised Murray’s novel as being “both accomplished and highly readable, the characters shine, and the family members’ individual story arcs are all equally compelling and gripping.”

Guardian fiction editor Justine Jordan praised Murray’s tragicomic family saga in her review last May, noting that Murray “is brilliant on fathers and sons, sibling rivalry, grief, self-sabotage and self-denial, as well as the terrible weakness humans have for magical thinking, not least in regard to the climate crisis.”

“You won’t read a sadder, truer, funnier novel this year”, she added.

The judges called Strong Female Character “savagely funny, beautifully written and fearlessly honest”. The book traces Brady’s experience growing up with undiagnosed autism. In an interview in the Observer she said that while she has not talked about autism in her comedy much, writing the book allowed her to “be more vulnerable” and say what she “wanted to say”. Other books shortlisted alongside Brady’s were The Tidal Year by Freya Bromley, Undercurrent by Natasha Carthew and Hags by Victoria Smith.

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2023 Nero book awards category winners. Photograph: Aashfaria A Anwar T/A Studio Aash/Aashfaria A. Anwar

Magee triumphed in the debut fiction category for Close to Home, a novel about the lives of two working-class brothers in Belfast. “What sets this apart is the voice, which perfectly evokes a character and a community straining so hard against the systemic clamps of poverty, disillusionment, and ennui that the effort crackles off the page,” said the judges.

“There is a particular boldness in the way the novel deals with the prickly issue of masculinity,” wrote Keiran Goddard in his Guardian review. “It doesn’t lean too heavily on the easy heuristics of overdetermined toxicity and silence that so often colour literary depictions of working-class men. These aspects are present, of course, but Magee knows they are only part of the picture; his characters are also bold, loyal, hurt, audacious.”

Close to Home was chosen from a shortlist that also included The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa by Stephen Buoro, The New Life by Tom Crewe and Sunburn by Chloe Michelle Howarth.

Lincoln’s murder-mystery children’s novel The Swifts, illustrated by Claire Powell, was described as “fast-paced, fiercely charismatic and brimming with challenge and heart” and “everything a book for young people should be,” by the judges.

Lincoln’s story “recalls Lemony Snicket as much as the current vogue for middle years Miss Marple-ing”, wrote Kitty Empire in a Guardian review. The other shortlisted children’s authors were Lex Croucher for Gwen and Art Are Not in Love, Kat Dunn for Bitterthorn and Candy Gourlay for Wild Song.

Gerry Ford, CEO of Caffè Nero, said that the company’s hope is for the awards to “represent a badge of exceptional quality which is seen as aspirational for authors and within the industry and a trustworthy recommendation for readers”. The winner of the Nero Gold prize for overall book of the year will be announced on 14 March.

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