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.

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Reading the Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist

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In mid January I wrote of my plans to read the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist (you may read my post here). Between now and the announcement of the prize winner on 9th March I will be posting my thoughts on each book along with guest posts from those of their publishers who chose to take part in this feature. I am grateful to all who found the time to provide me with content.

I had previously read two of the books from the prize longlist which did not make it onto the shortlist. I have since read one other. If you click on a title below the photograph you may read my reviews.

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I had also previously read one of the shortlisted books:

Given the quality of the writing in all of these books I was eager to tackle the remaining shortlist and have not been disappointed. All credit to the prize judges for curating such an impressive selection.

On Friday I will post the first of my remaining reviews – Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). This has already won the Goldsmith Prize and the Irish Book Award Novel of the Year. It was the only other book from the Republic of Consciousness Prize long and short lists that I already had on my TBR pile. All other shortlisted books have been generously provided by the publishers for this feature – a big thank you to them.

Next week I will post my thoughts on: Fine Fine Fine Fine Fine by Diane Williams (CB Editions – who went into semi-retirement just before the shortlist was announced); Martin John by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories) which was also shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize and the 2016 Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction; Treats by Lara Williams (Freight Books).

My reviews for the remaining three books on the shortlist – Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John (Cassava Republic) which was shortlisted for the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature and longlisted for the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature, Counter Narratives by John Keene (Fitzcarraldo Editions), and Light Box by KJ Orr (Daunt Books) – will follow along with the promised publisher guest posts.

Naturally I am not the only person reading these books. I recommend you check out the reviews being posted by the contemporary small press – A site for small presses, writers, poets & readers as they are excellent.

As a footnote to this introduction I will add one other thing that this exercise has taught me – how to spell consciousness. I have been hashtagging it on Twitter incorrectly for over a month. If you spot me doing this sort of thing again? Please let me know.

Reading the Galley Beggar Press backlist

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Today I should have been travelling to London to attend a book launch and party for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge, the latest offering from Galley Beggar Press and currently on the shortlist for the Republic of Conciousness Prize. Due to engineering works I had to pull out as my planned train home will not be running. This is disappointing, especially as I have been preparing for the event for some time. My preparation involved reading so actually no great hardship there.

For Christmas in 2015 I was gifted a Galley Buddy subscription along with copies of every full length paperback I did not already own from the publisher’s backlist. When no bookish shaped gifts appeared in my stocking last year it was pointed out by my not-a-reader husband that I had not yet read all of the previous year’s much wanted titles. When I was invited to this party I decided to pick up my neglected books. Galley Beggar Press publish ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’, just the sort of stories I enjoy. There will be no Gig Review this weekend as I had planned, but you may now read my reviews of all the books by clicking on the covers below.

forbidden-line   Adam-Biles--Feeding-Time

Alex-Pheby--Playthings   Anthony-Trevelyan--The-Weightless-World

wroteforluck    francisplug

randall--paperback   andrew-lovett-everlasting-lane-ebook

eimear-mcbride-a-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing-paperback   simon-gough-the-white-goddess-paperback-v2

Should you wish to order any of these please consider doing so direct from Galley Beggar. Even a few extra sales can make a difference to the viability of small presses.

My Books of 2016

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First off may I express my gratitude to those who support my endeavours to spread the book love. Thank you to the publishers who provide me with the majority of books I review. Thank you to the wider book community, particularly my fellow bloggers, who so generously and enthusiastically share and retweet my posts. Thank you to my readers – some 30,000 of you this year – I hope that you have enjoyed and found value in my words. Thank you to the authors who enrich our lives with their art.

I write my reviews immediately after finishing each book that I may capture how it made me feel. In selecting this list of favourites from the 170 or so titles that I read and reviewed in 2016 I am choosing based on lingering impressions – the books that stayed in my head. I have not provided summaries here but if you click on the title you may open my review.

It has been a good year for readers, which is perhaps just as well given all that has gone down in the wider world. I felt somewhat ruthless whittling my list down to just these few when there were so many others that I enjoyed. Each of these titles went deeper than simple pleasure, valuable though this is. The writing and stories burrowed inside and have remained.

In no particular order, my fiction Top 11:

Non Fiction:

  • Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari  (Harvill Secker)

And just for fun, what every coffee table needs…

Please remember, should you choose to buy any of their books, it helps the small publishers if you order from them direct.

I wish you all a peaceful and happy 2017 enhanced by much good reading – sláinte.

 

Book Reviews – Guest Post by Angelena Boden

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Today I am delighted to welcome Angelena Boden to my blog. Angelena is the author of ‘The Cruelty of Lambs’, which I review here. As a book blogger I was interested to read this author perspective on book reviews. I will be posting my interview with Angelena tomorrow.

You’ve agonised over plot, characters and dialogue, driving your household or friends crazy as you divert conversations away from them and back to your book: your wonderful debut novel which you are sure is going to reach great heights. Dreams of Hollywood fill your star-gazing moments.

Your family indulges you, oohing and ahhing over your opening paragraph, then express amazement when you tell them you’ve written 80,000 words. ‘But it’s so hard to get a publisher these days,’ they say with a smirk and a wave of insecurity hits you. A year’s work or more could be all for nothing. ‘Well, I can self-publish,’ you hit back. Millionaires are made on the back of a 99 cent erotic thriller.’

Whichever way you go with your book, traditional, independent or self-publishing you will have to face the day when that great creation you’ve given a painful birth to, nurtured and had to let go to find its own place in the wider world. That is unless you are happy to simply store it under the bed for secret readings in the early hours.

Who knows, it might be discovered when the kids are clearing out the house and it wins a cheeky posthumous award and they fight over the resulting royalties.

Most debut authors fear negative reviews. It’s like starting your first job and being shredded during an appraisal. Self-doubt creeps in, fragile egos get massacred and recently printed pages of that second novel get tossed in the air.

When The Cruelty of Lambs hit the marketplace there’s no denying I was nervous. I’ve been in a creative business long enough to know that not everybody likes or wants your product. As writers we have to accept that. Reviews are like a one way missile. Sensible authors don’t retaliate or demand from the reviewer a blow by blow account of why they didn’t like it.

Reviewers not only provide a valuable service to potential readers but also to authors. I appreciate the time a reviewer has taken to read my novel and the careful crafting of their response to it. If there is something in there I can use for future books then even better. A criticism might sting for a minute or two but it won’t throw me into despair or an emotional breakdown. Quite the reverse. As Hillary Clinton said recently, Anger isn’t a plan.

A plan should be to keep improving and polishing your craft, learning from more experienced authors and write, write, write. It’s tough. It’s a marathon not a sprint and no matter how much work you put into it, it’s guaranteed that a percentage of the reading public might not like it.

So, what should you do if you get a bad review?

In a word, nothing. It’s still a review. Focus on the positive ones. Definitely don’t rush to a social media site to complain! Remember why you write. Many of us are driven to put fingertips to keyboard.

Those words are busting to come out. Make sure they are not loaded with poisoned arrows at reviewers who have been kind enough to give up a few hours of their day to focus on your work. It’s not personal even if it feels like it.

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The Cruelty of Lambs is published by Urbane Publications and is available to buy now.

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Book Review and Giveaway for the publication of Blackout

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Today I am delighted to be the bringing the Black Out Blog Tour to a close. I hope that you have been enjoying reading the other stops on this tour, details of which are provided above. The lovely Karen at Orenda Books, who publishes the Dark Iceland series, has generously offered a fabulous giveaway which I will detail later. First though, my thoughts on the book.

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Blackout, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the third book in the author’s Dark Iceland series. It is set in the time period between the previous two – Snowblind (which I review here) and Nightblind (which I review here). In this instalment it is summer in Iceland, although the south of the island is suffering the effects of a volcanic eruption which has blanketed the area in an ash cloud.

The story opens with the discovery of a mutilated body outside a partially built house near the northern town of Skagafjörður. The victim’s legal residence is listed as Siglufjörður so this town’s police officers, Ari Thór and Tomás, are asked to assist in the suspected murder investigations. The third officer on their team, Hlynur, feels overlooked when his younger and less experienced colleague is given precedence by their boss. Hlyner’s increasing absent mindedness, due to persistent and threatening emails, has been affecting the quality of his work.

Ari Thór and Tomás travel around Iceland interviewing the dead man’s acquaintances. They are not the only ones doing so. A television news reporter, Isrun, is also taking a close interest in the case. She travels north in the hope of uncovering secrets that will enable her to regain the respect of her colleagues in the newsroom. All three soon discover that the man had been involved in shady dealings, the details of which are being kept secret by his acquaintances for a shocking reason.

Ari Thór is often abrupt and bad tempered. He is missing his former girlfriend, Kristen. Tomás is also lonely and contemplating moving south to rejoin his wife. Leaving Siglufjörður, where he has lived for so long, would be a wrench. The officers personal preoccupations distract them from reaching out to help Hlyner as he sinks deeper into a mire of his own making.

The writing jumps around in time and place offering many threads which coalesce as the denouement approaches. There are significant events from dark pasts to recount, the isolation and austerity of the land seeming to seep into its resident’s psyches. The style of the prose reflects this. It is succinct and spartan, atmospheric with elements of stark beauty.

This is another enjoyable instalment in an excellent crime fiction series which is gripping but never formulaic. The reader is transported to Iceland where they become caught up in the twisty tale. Ari Thór is on form as the prickly yet likeable young protagonist. I am already looking forward to reading his next adventure when Rupture is released early next year.

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If you would like to experience this book for yourself then read on.

Orenda Books are offering one of my readers the chance to win a free Blackout audiobook. Two other lucky readers could win a set of all three books in the Dark Iceland series (Snowblind, Nightblind and Blackout). If you would like to enter this giveaway then this is what you have to do: 

  1. Follow me on Twitter:  Jackie Law (@followthehens)
  2. Retweet the relevant tweet ensuring that you select the prize you prefer – audiobook or set of paperbacks

I will randomly draw the three winners from all those who have retweeted before 8am in the UK on Wednesday 21st September. This giveaway is open internationally.

A huge thank you to Orenda Books for supplying this magnificent prize, and for providing me with my copy of the book to review. 

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Random Musings: Rankings and Rancour

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I have acquired a couple of new on line badges recently. After a slow but steady climb through the rankings over a good couple of years I became a Top 1000 Reviewer on Amazon. Then, last week, I received an email from Goodreads informing me that I was a Top 1% Reviewer. This is all very nice but hardly life changing. I will continue to write and post my reviews in the hope that they are useful for readers and of some benefit to those who create the books we derive so much pleasure from.

I am aware that rankings matter for authors and publishers. The higher the ranking of a book in its allocated genre the higher its profile in the algorithms used by online sites to suggest a user’s next great read. As a reviewer though, I had given my personal stake in this process little thought. Authors benefit from having a certain number of reviews posted of their books (I believe fifty is the magic number on Amazon) but as far as I was concerned that was it.

However, since becoming an Amazon 1000 Reviewer I have noticed something curious. My ranking continues to climb at the same slow but steady rate, and then I receive a slew of down votes all at once until I am beyond the cusp of that magic 1000. It is almost as if someone is trying to push me out of the club. How strange.

Is there really competition amongst Amazon reviewers for this badge that could drive such dastardly behaviour?

Numbers are little devils waiting to knock our self esteem. When I see other book reviewers post photos on social media of their latest towering pile of book post, especially in a week when my front hall has lacked that satisfying thunk of a lovely new book being pushed through the letterbox, I need to sternly remind myself that I already have more unread titles than I am likely to get through in a year.

When my slow but steadily growing twitter follower count passes another of those milestones that end with a zero, and then overnight slides below again, I need to remind myself that I have a policy of not following back unless the follower looks to wish to engage and not just promote for a reason.

My interactions with other book bloggers, authors and publishers has been positive and, at times, inspirational. I wonder who it is then who is playing this Amazon game. The power the retailer holds over sales means I would be doing a disservice to the authors and publishers I wish to benefit from my words if I were to withdraw from the site. Neither would I feel comfortable playing the system.

Has anyone else noticed such behaviour? My sensitive little soul does not require these badges, but having been given them I notice when they are taken away.