Truly great expectations

The National Book Council will find itself more and more intensely scrutinized by the critical eye of our many authors and the reading public

This year round, we once again expect some great titles to awe us and grab our full attention
This year round, we once again expect some great titles to awe us and grab our full attention

Summer is coming, schools will be closing and National Book Prize judges will be busy reading through their book lists. The adjudication process has already started, yet it will take as long as October for the jury to reach their final verdict, right before Malta Book Festival which traditionally opens with the announcement of the Terramaxka Prize for children’s books. The winners of the Prize for adult literature and research categories are announced later in December in a separate ceremony.

Children’s books are becoming increasingly more attractive. Merlin publishers dominated last year’s Terramaxka prize and this comes as no surprise to anyone who has leafed through its books. Merlin’s in-house designer Pierre Portelli needs no introductions, and is well-known in the literary and artistic scene. Merlin prides itself in its varied choice of prestigious artists for its productions. Mingu, penned by renowned author Clare Azzopardi, is illustrated by Lisa Falzon, a Maltese artist who has made a name with her mystical and dream-like paintings. Mingu tells the story of a flamingo that was shot down by a hunter and the book is indicative of a new trend in children’s books, in which authors seek to bring out contemporary and controversial themes in their work. It is hoped that this trend will, in due course, completely supersede the more traditional children’s book type, which depends so heavily on slapstick humour.

Other winners in the children’s categories included Pierre J. Mejlak, a recipient of the European Union Prize for literature, Loranne Vella and John Bonello with his book Irvin Vella: investigatur virtwali a fantasy crime novel for children to ages from 8 to 12. The winner for the ages from 12 to 16 was Djamantini, a collection of poems, stories and illustrations by children from Pembroke’s secondary school; an interesting project made possible thanks to school teacher Sharon Micallef Cann.

The prize for adult novels was once more awarded to a publication by Klabb Kotba Maltin, Alex Vella Gera’s Trojan. Klabb Kotba Maltin has recently emerged as the dominant winner in this category with authors such as Immanuel Mifsud and Walid Nabhan, both recipients of the European Union Prize for Literature. A second-time winner of the Prize, Vella Gera needs no introduction, and his work speaks for itself. With Trojan Alex Vella Gera takes a more sublime route to existential crisis, in contrast to his highly controversial Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi. I will not spoil the book for those who have not read it yet, but in Trojan, a story about a conservative author who made a name from the only book he published, you only get the significant and relevant background at the very end of the story, in a way which illustrates perfectly the art of keeping a secret with all its dark, deep and hidden implications.

A new publisher to enter the college of Book Prize winners is Kite with its astonishing pictorial album of Antonio Sciortino’s models, written and compiled by Gerald Bugeja. Antonio Sciortino: The Lost Album is a collection of a significant number of photographs of models of works by Antonio Sciortino complemented with Bugeja’s insightful commentary on Sciortino’s life and work. The prize in the historiography section went to Keith Sciberras with his important study of the Baroque art of Malta Caravaggio to Mattia Preti, which he shared with Paul George Pisani’s The Battle of Lepanto, 7 October 1571, an unpublished Hospitaller account, a study of the account of the Battle of  Lepanto by Abbot Luc Cenni. The translation category prize was awarded to Edmund Teuma with his translation of the Arabic Nights, published by BDL.

The poetry prize was won by Nadia Mifsud, a Maltese translator working and living in France, with her collection of poems Kantuniera ‘l bogħod. This was probably the most difficult category to adjudicate given that the other entrants included some well-established names such as Adrian Grima and Norbert Bugeja, not to mention Joe P. Galea, whose Bla Qiegħ: Poeżija mit-Trab, published by Horizons, impressed the reading public to the point that the book seemed certain to win the prize. It is being said that Galea will be publishing a novel soon and this is surely a book to watch out for. 

A veteran author and a household name, Trevor Żahra carried off the prize in the short-story category with a collection of dark and mysterious stories, Vespri. Published in 2015, the book had been received with accolades of acclaim by both critics and members of the reading public. There can be no doubt that this is one of his best works to date.

Last year a new prize was introduced to award emerging authors, that is, authors who have one or very few publications to their name but who have nonetheless managed to win the attention of critics. The first winner of the Emerging Author Prize is Leanne Ellul, who had already made a name when her debut novel “Gramma” won the National Book Council’s and Aġenzija Żgħażagħ’s Literature for Youth Contest. Gramma is a young-adult novel about anorexia and body-issues with a female voice.

This year round, we once again expect some great titles to awe us and grab our full attention. With regards to the administration and the adjudication of the Prize, the National Book Council continually strives to raise the standards and the level of the adjudication process. The prize will always be highly controversial, since giving a prize to a book and not to another may always be reduced into subjective criteria even though we have a system which is aimed to create the best possible objective outcome. Authors are always invited to speak about the National Book Prize at our consultation meetings and the National Book Council has always given due consideration to their feedback, along with that of the publishers. As the Prize becomes ever more popular, prestigious and sought-after, the National Book Council will find itself more and more intensely scrutinized by the critical eye of our many authors and the reading public. Meanwhile the National Book Council’s adjudication board is busy evaluating last year’s published books.

Happy reading everyone.

Mark Camilleri is chairman of the National Book Council

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