Reading the 2017 Guardian Not The Booker Prize Shortlist

Last year I set myself the task of reading the Guardian newspaper’s Not The Booker Prize shortlist – you may read my roundup here. The exercise left me feeling a little jaded, the reading not always being as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. I did enjoy attending Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. Not many in the audience had read the complete shortlist so this at least provided a sense of satisfaction for my efforts. It did at times feel quite an effort.

Nevertheless, when summer rolled back around and nominations were invited for the 2017 prize I once again became caught up in the excitement of promoting lesser known works – something I always enjoy doing. This year, at the initial stage, I waited to see what titles others would nominate. To gain a place on the longlist only one nomination is required and some of the books I would have considered putting forward had already gained a place. I added The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel (Salt Publishing) which richly deserved consideration.

Voting on the longlist proved challenging as so many good books were included amongst the 150+ to get through to this stage. In the end I gave my two votes to The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks (Salt Publishing) and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books). Sadly, neither made it onto the shortlist.

It was, however, an interesting looking selection which I therefore decided to read. Grateful thanks to the publishers who supported my efforts by providing copies of their books.

On each of the past six Fridays I posted my review of the book Sam Jordison was to discuss in the Guardian during the following week. You may click on the title below to read my thoughts.

Not Thomas by Sara Gethin (Honno Press)

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li (Legend Press)

The Threat Level Remains Severe by Rowena MacDonald (Aardvark Bureau)

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society by Ann O’Loughlin (Black and White Publishing)

Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige (Bluemoose Books)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Viking)

I found this a stronger shortlist than last year, much more enjoyable to read. The final book, Anything Is Possible, was not selected by public vote but rather chosen by last year’s judges as a wildcard entry in a new idea being trialled this year. Having read it I was surprised by the choice. It is a follow on to the author’s critically acclaimed novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, which I have not read. Comments on my review suggest that it will be well received by the author’s fans as it builds on characters previously referred to. It does not, in my opinion, stand alone. Anything is Possible is also the only book on the shortlist not published by a small independent press, something that may be indicative of the sort of prize Not The Booker has become. In my view this is a good thing.

I made a conscious decision to post each of my reviews prior to Sam’s appearing in the Guardian that I may not be influenced by his thoughts. I was then able to add my views BTL and consider points made by other readers. I enjoyed this process and was only sorry that more comments, especially from those who voted the books onto the shortlist, were not submitted.

Last week, in what I believe may be an unprecedented move, Ann O’Loughlin requested that her novel, The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, be withdrawn from the shortlist. You may read her statement here. Whilst respecting her right to act as she sees fit I have mixed feelings about an author reacting in this way to a negative review. One of the other authors, Sara Gethin, gave her thoughts on the withdrawal here.

And so the process continues with the remaining five books. Although I have a clear favourite – Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige – I am glad to have read each of the first three, which I may never have discovered had they not been included. This is a strength of the contest.

If you would like to attend this year’s Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop on Thursday 12th October you may book a ticket here. Sam Jordison will chair the event where those authors who accept the invitation will read from their books and may then respond to his Guardian reviews.

The winner will be announced in the Guardian following a public vote and then a meeting of the chosen judges which will be broadcast live by the paper on 16 October. The winner will receive a rare and precious Guardian mug such as that pictured above. They may then bask in the glory that goes with winning this inimitable literary prize. Despite the withdrawal it has been a fine year.

The Competition is powered by the collective intelligence of Guardian readers. Enough said.

Advertisements

Book Review: Anything is Possible

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout, is marketed as a novel but reads as a series of interconnected short stories. Each of the nine chapters introduces the reader to a new protagonist with links to a small town in Illinois, USA. Many of the characters are related and briefly referred to in each other’s stories. Also mentioned with a regularity that irked is Lucy Barton, a successful novelist who grew up in the town and got away.

The author received much critical acclaim for her novel My Name is Lucy Barton which I have not read. By referring to this character so frequently it sometimes felt promotional. Lucy does make an appearance in one of the chapters but in that story is no more important than anyone else. The townsfolk would likely be interested in the minor celebrity of their former resident but the number of references made gave her an importance that felt overplayed.

Each of the nine stories explores the private lives and intimate thoughts of a middle aged or elderly resident over a few days in their lives. The writing style brought to mind that of Kent Haruf although is rougher around the edges. It tries to be gently perceptive yet portrays mainly the unpleasant aspects of character. In particular, the grown up children appear selfish and needy, blaming their parents for not being willing to put up with unhappiness in order to perpetuate the myth of family desired.

Progressing through each chapter the reader is shown how characters are viewed through other’s eyes. The starving children who hunt for discarded food are reviled for not showing sufficient shame at their predicament. When they raise their standard of living later in life there is little admiration, rather an expectation is voiced that they should remember their roots and not look to be accepted as equals by those who always enjoyed plenty.

Obesity is regarded as a self inflicted failure. A husband’s affair is more shocking for the size of his mistress compared to his wife than for the infidelity. The depictions of married life are, in places, deeply disturbing. Even when abuse is recognised the reaction of neighbours is to look away.

While appreciating the unpleasant truth of the views portrayed the lack of balance detracted from my enjoyment. Kindnesses were shown in places but always, it seemed, with a degree of resentment. Perhaps I am naive in believing that people are not as self-obsessed as portrayed here. The writing may be piercing, the style fluid, but I did not derive pleasure from reading.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Viking.

 

Anything is Possible has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. It is the final book on this shortlist to be reviewed and the only one to have been selected by a panel of judges rather than by public vote. 

Book Review: Earthly Remains

Earthly Remains, by Donna Leon, is the twenty-sixth instalment in the author’s Brunetti series of crime fiction novels. It is the first that I have read and can easily be enjoyed standalone. Set in and around the Venetian Lagoon, the islands and waterways play an important role. Refreshingly for crime fiction the protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is happily married with children and an apparently stable past. He drinks but not to excess, confides in his wife, and is pragmatic in his approach to people and work.

The story opens with a police interview during which Brunetti takes drastic measures to prevent a junior colleague risking his career when goaded by the arrogance of the wealthy lawyer they are questioning. As a result of his actions Brunetti is signed off work sick and decides he would benefit from some time away from home. Thanks to his wife’s family connections he secures a stay at a villa on one of the more rural local islands where he can spend time rowing, an activity he enjoyed as a boy. The property is cared for by Davide Casati who Brunetti discovers was a friend of his father, a connection that breaks down the barriers of formality between strangers.

The two men spend their days out on the water taking Casati’s puparin between small islands where he keeps beehives. They find that, in some of the hives, the bees are dying. Casati gathers samples to be tested in an attempt to discover why. He is greatly upset by what is happening, more than Brunetti would have expected. Casati mutters darkly about being to blame for this and his wife’s death. She died from cancer four years previously and he has never recovered from his loss.

Brunetti pays little heed to these outbursts until one weekend, after a storm, Casati fails to return to the home he shares with his daughter. Naturally she is concerned voicing a fear that her father, a competent boatman, may have succumbed to his continuing grief and chosen to join his wife in death. With time on his hands and unease about his new found friend, Brunetti decides to investigate.

There is an almost languorous feel to the prose yet somehow this seems apt given the setting. Brunetti shows awareness and appreciation of his surroundings alongside skill in reading and manipulating the people he meets. He notes the irony of the gratitude he feels when offered small services by strangers, tasks he takes for granted when performed quietly by his wife. He recognises the foolishness of his desire to appear ‘manly’ and the concessions he allows women over men.

A rich tapestry of a novel that explores many facets of wrong-doing and the reasons they are too often overlooked. The sense of place evoked is inspiring, even if locals do regard tourists as an infestation. This is an enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, William Heinemann. 

Book Review: The Late Season

The Late Season, by Stephen Hines, is a collection of twelve short stories that ooze atmosphere and an air of dislocation whilst also being intimate and revealing. They explore the isolation and detachment of everyday life across contemporary North America. There is an earthy reality to the settings and characters that is in contrast to the shiny veneers presented on TV. The depth of the storytelling is impressive, especially given the succinctness of each tale.

The book opens with the eponymous the late season in which a salesman has outstayed his welcome at a remote motel. He does little with his days other than swim in the ice-encrusted pool and quietly drink from a flask, allowing time to pass him by. The couple in charge of the accommodation wish to close up for the winter but are reluctant to face the potential unpleasantness of evicting their quiet guest. Their young daughter regards the salesman, and his effect on her parents, with curiosity and fear.

honeymoon introduces a couple and their daughter who have suffered a series of family bereavements. On vacation the wife takes her daughter out on a boat and fails to return. As friends and neighbours help to search for them, the husband stands apart playing out possible future scenarios in his head. His mistake is in subsequently sharing these inner meanderings; some thoughts are best left unsaid.

Inner monologues from several of the characters reveal how socially unacceptable the workings of the mind can at times be. They also enable the reader to empathise with those society avoids engaging with due to their inability to fit within acceptable bounds of normalcy.

in early February tells of the death of a young boy’s mother who had been severely overweight. Adult attempts at offering support and comfort are misunderstood causing the child further consternation. The boy hears what is being said but misconstrues intention. It is a reminder that children and grown ups speak the same words but interpret differently.

the book cellar is set in a downtown bookshop where a young employee is struggling to appear as casually confident as he wishes in order to appear attractive to his boss. She is kind but more tolerant than interested in his attentions. His unrequited love, which he continues to feed with her every small gesture, threatens to bring down the carefully constructed social acceptability of his day to day existence.

Death, poverty and social dislocation are pivotal in many of the tales yet this is not a dour collection. The characters are confronting conventional issues and moving forwards, not necessarily to anything better but to the next stage in their lives. This movement offers the prospect of change even if it is not yet realised. The ordinary can feel extraordinary to the individual dealing with their personal concerns.

An impressive debut that introduces an author bringing to life people overlooked and less than ideal. The weak-willed and vulnerable are portrayed with sympathy and perceptiveness. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.

Book Review: House of Spines

House of Spines, by Michael J Malone, is a ghost story. Set in present day Glasgow its protagonist is Ranald McGhie, a bipolar writer whose parents died when he was eighteen and whose marriage fell apart after his wife had him sectioned. Now living alone in a small rented flat he is surprised to be summoned to a lawyers office for the reading of a will. Here he discovers that his mother’s estranged family were wealthy and that he has inherited a large house, Newton Hall, on condition he retain it and the many books therein.

The house comes with a housekeeper and gardener along with funds left in trust for its upkeep. Ran’s Great-Uncle Alexander had been preparing this bequest for some time. Ran finds quality clothes in his size along with new bedding and other essentials. What he also discovers is that the old property has a resident ghost, but is it real or a construct of his long disturbed mind?

Ran is not the only relative still alive and two cousins, Marcus and Rebecca, soon put in an appearance. The lawyer had assured Ran that Newton Hall was not wanted by anyone else, that his cousins were well provided for in the will. This turns out not to have been enough for the unpleasant siblings who have lucrative plans for the hall’s sale and redevelopment. Marcus tries to persuade Ran that it would be in his best interests to move away, sharing the proceeds, but Ran has developed an affinity for his great-uncle and is reluctant to agree.

The shock of his changed circumstances and the loneliness of this vast new home affect Ran’s mental wellbeing. He hears noises, sees shadows, discovers notebooks and letters in desks that affect his subconscious. The only places he feels truly comfortable are in the library or newly installed fitness suite. His uneasiness manifests in vivid dreams, activities he does not remember, and episodes of sleepwalking. He is continually drawn to a broken lift that his housekeeper had kept locked, advising him to stay away.

The writing is sharp, intense, and deliciously chilling until the last hundred or so pages. By this stage Marcus has become immured by the evolving situation, understandable given his illness and stuttered medication but a tad irritating to read. I guessed where the plot was going and wondered why his concerned friends had not checked in on him. Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations of those he pushed away, and the impact of his trust issues.

The gothic elements of the tale are masterfully written; Newton Hall a fabulous creation. Ran’s reluctance to face up to his illness, his disavowal of the management strategies prescribed by professionals, added an interesting layer to the more usual fear of the dark, shadows behind curtains and monsters under the bed tropes of haunted houses.

This is an enjoyable read even if I did find the structuring of the conclusion weaker than the beginning and middle sections. I am, however, left pondering what will happen to Ran next, if perhaps this is a circular tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on the House of Spines Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

House of Spines is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: Man With A Seagull On His Head

“She’d sat in front of him for three weeks and he hadn’t seen her. How odd to discover one didn’t exist.”

Man With A Seagull On His Head, by Harriet Paige, opens in the summer of 1976 when council worker Ray Eccles walks to his local beach where he suffers a blow to the head from a falling seagull. The moment is witnessed by Jennifer Mulholland, a shop assistant at a nearby department store who happens to be by the shore. No words are exchanged but this brief encounter, the unexpected vision of an unknown woman as he is felled, is seared onto Ray’s subconscious. The previously ordinary middle aged man living alone, who had never thought to create art, returns home to spend every waking moment trying to paint the woman on every surface available and with whatever substances come to hand.

Ten years later Ray Eccles is acclaimed by the art world. Now living in London he has been adopted by Grace and George Zoob, collectors with a penchant for the experimental. Ray is still painting his woman and nobody, including him, knows who she is. An interview in a national newspaper alerts Jennifer to her unasked for role as Ray’s muse.

Alternative chapters allow the reader to catch up with the direction Jennifer’s life has taken. Still living in her small Essex town she no longer lives in a bedsit but has become part of a wider family. She observes the decisions people around her have made and how these have changed the trajectories of their lives. Few have ended up where they expected.

“she realised that she had no true friends in the world and that there was no one at all who understood anything about who she was.”

Themes of loneliness and the small deaths of personal dreams pervade. There is an undercurrent of quiet desperation. Grace Zoob struggles with her need to be acknowledged in a world that has no need for her individual existence. Eventually she takes out her frustrations on Ray.

The depiction of the art world is amusing but it is the deftly drawn characters and their private concerns that add impressive depth to this engaging story. It is piercing in its insights, poignant yet somehow uplifting. Life may at times appear to have no purpose yet still people find ways to live.

“sometimes you just had to put one foot in front of the other and tell yourself that you’d have a nice cup of tea when you got home.”

Quirky in places but always accessible this is existentialism wrapped into an entertaining tale. A book that I will now be eagerly recommending – a vividly drawn, satisfying read.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose.

 

Man With A Seagull On His Head has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Book Review: My Mother’s Shadow

My Mother’s Shadow, by Nikola Scott, is not a book I would have chosen by the cover, looking as it does like some sort of romance. And it does have a romance thread, but underplayed enough not to detract from the main plot which involves a family secret kept for decades. When offered a proof I was told that the writing would appeal to those who enjoyed Kate Morton’s books (I remember liking The House at Riverton). Again, this comparative marketing often leaves me cold but the synopsis intrigued. I decided to put aside my prejudices and review.

The first few chapters were overwrought and my scepticism returned – I was tempted to stop reading at this point. I felt impatient with the giddy behaviour of the protagonist who appeared to lose her power of hearing, knock objects over or bump into things every time she was told something unexpected. The revelations she was offered initially generated denial rather than more natural curiosity.

The story makes use of the now popular trope of telling interlinked tales concurrently across two timelines. The first is written in the form of a diary and begins in the summer of 1958. Sixteen year old Elizabeth Holloway, the only child of George and Constance, is sent to stay in a coastal country house belonging to wealthy acquaintances of her mother. Constance is dying of cancer and does not wish her child to remember her as the husk she knows she will imminently become.

The second part of the story is set forty-two years later. Addie Harrington has been summoned to the family home by her domineering sister, Venetia, to mark the first anniversary of their mother’s death. Venetia revered her mother and has demanded that her belongings be left untouched, the house like a shrine. Their father has remained in a state of limbo since his beloved wife’s sudden and accidental demise.

Addie, who appears to be something of a doormat, had a difficult relationship with her mother, Lizzie, never believing that she fulfilled her exacting demands and expectations. Lizzie had attained a PhD and worked at a university. She wanted greater things for Addie than her chosen career as a baker. The reader is offered more detail than I personally needed about baking.

As Addie and Venetia prepare to leave their father at the family home the doorbell rings. A stranger introduces herself as Phoebe Roberts and tells them that she is looking for Mrs Elizabeth Harrington née Holloway, that she has recently discovered that Lizzie is her birth mother. Phoebe was born on the same day as Addie.

What unfolds is the story of a gilded summer and its dark aftermath. In the later timeline Addie and Phoebe are trying to discover why they were seperated at birth. Neither girl had been told that the other existed. The secret has come to light only because Phoebe came across a notebook written by Elizabeth during her confinement and kept by Phoebe’s adoptive parents.

There are twists and turns aplenty as threads of the mystery are revealed. Wider outcomes are easy to guess but the detail and reasoning are presented at a pace and with sufficient depth to keep the reader engaged. It offers a salutory lesson for those who look back at life in the 1950s as cosy, safe and innocent. The author states:

“Lace-curtain respectability and pre-war propriety relegated women, who’d gained a foothold in the male-dominated society during the war, who’d worked and played and propped uo their country, back to home, hearth and family, subjecting them to the hypocrisy and double standards of a Victorian morality that tolerated little errant behaviour.”

The denoument was reached thanks to the type of coincidence that has to be accepted in a story such as this. I suffered irritations such as the diaries remaining hidden given where they were placed. However, my interest had been piqued and retained, the plot developed with a few clever twists.

A tale of the personal costs of the underlying cruelties inflicted on young women who dared to have sex before marriage, regarded by many as reasonable punishment for moral deviance. The epilogue was rather too twee for my tastes but this was a congenial if unchallenging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.