Salman Rushdie and Nick Hornby are among the shortlisted authors for the Whitbread best novel prize.
Hornby's new novel is reported to become a Hollywood film
Hornby's A Long Way Down and Rushdie's Shalimar The Clown compete with Ali Smith's The Accidental and The Ballad of Lee Cotton by Christopher Wilson.
Rachel Zadok - a finalist on a How to Get Published contest on TV's Richard and Judy show - is up for first novel.
All category winners and the overall book of the year selection will be announced on 4 January.
This year's awards, which also includes categories for poetry collection, biography and children's book, had 476 entries, the highest ever total for the Whitbread.
The awards recognise the most enjoyable books of last year by writers based in the UK and Ireland and were established by Whitbread in 1971.
Each category's shortlist was chosen by a panel of judges, who this year included writer and broadcaster John Humphrys; authors Philippa Gregory, Margaret Drabble and Linda Newbery; comedy writer and performer Arabella Weir and CBBC children's presenter Lizo Mzimba.
In Hornby's A Long Way Down, four people meet at the top of a tower block after independently deciding to kill themselves by jumping off.
Rushdie faced death threats over The Satanic Verses
The story is told through "the brilliantly drawn and distinctive voices of each of these characters", according to the shortlist nomination.
Judges described it as "a witty and compassionate novel".
Rushdie's new novel deals with a Muslim boy from a village in Kashmir who is guided to become an Islamic terrorist by a radical mullah.
The story is said to capture the heart of the reader and the spirit of a troubled age. Judges praised Rushdie's "panoramic imagination and great storytelling gifts".
Ali Smith's novel The Accidental is the story of a 12-year-old girl on holiday with her family in Norfolk, who films the dawn breaking each morning on her digital camera.
A modern-day reworking of Pasolini's 1968 film Theorem, it is described as "dazzlingly bright and profoundly dark".
The novel "combined humour, sadness and mystery with a wonderful linguistic playfulness and invention", said the judges.
In The Ballad of Lee Cotton, Christopher Wilson tells the story of the son of a mixed-race mother and Icelandic father, whose background - which makes him white - sets him apart from his friends in Eureka, Mississippi.
A story of what it is to be human, the book is described by the judges as "wholly original, utterly riveting and full of surprises".
The first novel category sees former waitress Rachel Zadok nominated for Gem Squash Tokoloshe, about a young girl growing up during under apartheid in South Africa.
The 33-year-old London waitress, who was born in Johannesburg, made it to the last five of the contest on Channel 4's Richard and Judy from 46,000 entries.
Zadok did not win that competition but her writing impressed publishing house Pan Macmillan who gave her a contract and £20,000 advance.
Winners in each of the five categories receive £5,000 and will be announced on 4 January 2006.
The overall winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year will receive £25,000 and will be selected and announced at the Whitbread Book Awards ceremony in central London on 24 January 2006.
The Whitbread Book of the Year award was established in 1985 and has been won seven times by a novel, three times by a first novel, four times by a biography, five times by a collection of poetry and once by a children's book.
The shortlist in full:
Nick Hornby - A Long Way Down
Salman Rushdie - Shalimar The Clown
Ali Smith - The Accidental
Christopher Wilson - The Ballad of Lee Cotton
First novel shortlist
Tash Aw - The Harmony Silk Factory
Diana Evans - 26a
Peter Hobbs -The Short Day Dying
Rachel Zadok - Gem Squash Tokoloshe
Nigel Farndale - Haw-Haw
Richard Mabey - Nature Cure
Alexander Masters - Stuart: A Life Backwards
Hilary Spurling - Matisse The Master
David Harsent - Legion
Christopher Logue - Cold Calls
Jane Yeh - Marabou
Richard Price - Lucky Day
Children's book shortlist
Frank Cottrell Boyce - Framed
Geraldine McCaughrean - The White Darkness
Hilary McKay - Permanent Rose
Kate Thompson - The New Policeman