It’s that time of year again! I’ve loved it for years, and I’m glad to report that the nominated stories for 2021 are incredibly strong. 

Click on each title to hear the stories for free on BBC Sounds. The first story will be broadcast on September 20th, with a new story for the following four days.

All the People Were Mean and Bad, by Lucy Caldwell

A crying toddler on an airplane is something that evokes either anger or sympathy, depending on where you stand. As a parent, it’s my worst nightmare, but this story is a beautiful take on the situation. Our narrator, a mother traveling alone on a long haul flight with her toddler, sits next to an incredibly compassionate man, and they form a strange, seductive bond. 

The use of second person narrative, not to mention the extremely realistic portrayal of motherhood, made this an incredibly relatable story. Ecstatic to see Caldwell back on the list; her 2019 shortlisted story, The Children, was incredibly moving.

The Body Audit, by Rory Gleeson

Thankfully, I don’t have any experience of dormitories occupied by teenage boys. I have a mental image (as well as a corresponding aroma), but The Body Audit was a refreshing change to the reputed “locker room” culture. Rather than gruesome stories and smells, this was about a group of young men addressing their insecurities, and building each other up. Gleeson has created an incredibly realistic group of characters, and I would genuinely love to think this is how teenagers in 2021 speak to each other. An unexpectedly beautiful story.

Night Train, by Georgina Harding

I really bloody love trains. I’m constantly looking at potential train-based vacations, aimed at people double my age. So this story was right up my alley. Harding’s story has a real evening glow about it. Alice has recently lost her mother. She takes a solo trip to Eastern Europe, and ends up sharing a sleeper cabin with a local woman, Iryna. Alice’s thoughts of her departed mother dominate the story, but the brief conversations Alice and Iryna have are so comfortable and warm, despite the fact they are complete strangers. This story was incredibly warm, with a hint of sadness, and beautifully told. 

Toadstone, by Danny Rhodes

I’m an absolute sucker for weird, English, small-town traditions. Before I hot-footed it to California, I lived in the north of England for the first 30 years of my life, so I’ve seen my share of inexplicable but harmless ceremonies. 

Toadstone is a gorgeous story of a man in the middle of a health scare, going back to his hometown. Along with revisiting his former life, he participates in a yearly act that aids amphibian advancement. He also comes across a strange object, which may prove to be the cure to his health issues. Another fantastic story, and Rhodes has created people and places that feel very familiar to this expat.

Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast, by Richard Smyth

I’ll admit, when I heard the title to this, I rolled my eyes at the anticipated pretension. But, as it turns out, this may actually be my favorite shortlisted story.

This gem is told in the form of reports, written by a Russian operative spying on botanist Shirkov, and his travel companion Nikitin. The story is told in such an innovative way to; I hesitate to share details of the plot, because it unravels so beautifully. It’s magnificent, and it’s my favorite to win this year.

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