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The winners of The Guardian Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize were announced this morning, the climax of an almost year-long search for the best novels by young unpublished writers around the world. Here they are, with synopses from the Hot Key press release

Vivian versus the Apocalypse cover


A chilling vision of a contemporary USA where the sinister Church of America is destroying lives. Our cynical protagonist, seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple, is awaiting the fated ‘Rapture’ – or rather the lack of it. Her evangelical parents have been in the Church’s thrall for too long, and she’s looking forward to getting them back. Except that when Vivian arrives home the day after the supposed ‘Rapture’, her parents are gone. All that is left are two holes in the ceiling…

Viv is determined to carry on as normal, but when she starts to suspect that her parents might still be alive, she realises she must uncover the truth. Joined by Peter, a boy claiming to know the real whereabouts of the Church, and Edie, a heavily pregnant Believer who has been ‘left behind’, they embark on a road trip across America. Encountering freak weather, roving ‘Believer’ gangs and a strange teenage group calling themselves the ‘New Orphans’, Viv soon begins to realise that the Rapture was just the beginning.

The Rig cover

THE RIG by Joe Ducie

Fifteen-year-old Will Drake has made a career of breaking out from high-security prisons. His talents have landed him at The Rig, a specialist juvenile holding facility in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. No one can escape from The Rig. No one except for Drake…

After making some escape plans and meeting the first real friends of his life, Drake quickly realises that all is not as it seems on The Rig. The Warden is obsessed with the mysterious Crystal-X – a blue, glowing substance that appears to give superpowers to the teens exposed to it. Drake, Tristan and Irene are banking on a bid for freedom – but can they survive long enough to make it? Drake is an action hero to rival Jason Bourne and the CHERUB team in this debut author’s fantastically imagined sci-fi nightmare.

It was my great pleasure to serve on the jury, alongside Julia Eccleshare, Elen Caldecott, Jon Newman (from the brilliant Newham Bookshop) and Hot Key Publisher Emily Thomas. You can read about the entries and the schedule and everything else over on the Hot Key blog, but essentially, young writers were asked to send in the opening of a novel they had either written or were working on – these were then sifted through and a longlist of writers were given until late 2012 to submit the completed manuscript. Those that managed to do so had their novels read and digested, and a shortlist was selected.

Which is where I, and the rest of the judges, came in. We had a couple of months to read, consider, and pick our favourites. Those favourites would win the categories, and receive the prize – publication on the Hot Key list. So no pressure, right?

The pressure was ramped up when I started reading the first of the shortlist, picked on nothing more than its title.

It was good. Really good.

I quickly read the first few chapters of them all, to give myself a feel for what was there, and my suspicions were confirmed. The standard was very, very high. On one hand this was a relief, as it’s impossible to predict what you will get whenever you do any kind of open submission or contest. If the contest had run six months earlier or later, the entries would no doubt have been very different, as writers found themselves at different stages in their processes. On the other hand, it was somewhat daunting, as the reality of having to judge other people’s work settled over me. I (metaphorically) rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.

I read one manuscript on the balcony of a hotel in Grenada, another on a long, turbulent flight to Los Angeles, two in a hotel in New York, and one on my sofa at home, barely three days before the judging panels were scheduled to gather and pick our winner. The range of voices, genres, characters and stories were fantastic, and every one of the manuscripts marked its author out as someone with talent. I went to the judging summit at the Hot Key offices unsure, wavering, ready to argue the corners of all the titles on the shortlist.

We gathered, ate, drank, and talked, and talked, and talked. And it gradually became clear that their was consensus among us – that two (very different) books had impressed us above the others. They were beautifully written, with clear narrative voices, three-dimensional characters, plots that delivered on two incredibly strong premises, and dialogue that crackled with life.

They were worthy winners.

Both books will be published on 5th September, and you should really read them when they’re out. If only so you can say that you knew about them before they both became successful and famous :) Because they’re fantastic books – they really are. If you know me IRL, you’ll know how hard I am to impress. But these two books managed it, in spades.

The Guardian and Hot Key have agreed to run the prize again next year, which is also great news – if you’re an unpublished writer, keep an eye on their blog for all the information…


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