Gig Review: Not The Booker Live

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Regular readers will be aware that I have been following this year’s Guardian newspaper Not The Booker Prize with interest. Having read each of the six shortlisted books, I summarised my thoughts here. I mused:

“After the initial euphoria of selection I do wonder what the authors and their publishers have made of all that is being said about their work”

On Saturday I had the chance to find out when I travelled to London for my first visit to the Big Green Bookshop who, for the third year running, were hosting Not The Booker Live. This is a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian’s Sam Jordison and featuring as many of the authors on the shortlist as can get there on the night.

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The three who came along – Jemma Wayne (Chains of Sand), Dan Micklethwaite (The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote) and Dan Clements (What Will Remain) were those who are based in England. Dan M had travelled with an entourage from the far north. They contributed to what turned out to be an interesting discussion.

To start proceedings each author talked briefly about their book and gave a short reading.

Jemma considered her characters, although brought up within differing cultures and privilege, to feel a lack of control over their destinies. The cause they were expected to support was, to some of their family and peers, more important than truth. Their rebellion against expectation was the beginning of free thought.

Dan M explained that his initial idea had been to produce a reworking of Don Quixote. He read out the first chapter of his book as he felt this best explained what it was about.

Dan C considered through his story whether the damage caused to people by experience can sometimes not be fixed. His story of war looks at the lasting impacts on soldiers’ lives. He suggested that certain actions that appear foolish – such as blowing a compensation payment on a sports car or trip to Vegas – can also be life affirming. Good things in life may sometimes be denied to those who live too earnestly.

Sam then talked of the unique process this prize offers for readers. Unlike other literary prizes, the discussion of the shortlist is open to anyone who wishes to comment and is available for all to read. He asked how the authors felt about their books being selected.

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Dan M told us it felt like a really public workshopping of his novel.

Jemma appreciated the opportunity to reach new readers but felt it was best for publishers and new authors. She admitted to inviting friends and family to vote for her at the earlier stages. She wondered if certain commentators agreed with Sam’s reviews because they wished to be chosen as a judge. The process offers no filter. She found the comments interesting but bruising. It was only after returning to them after a few weeks that she could see the positives.

Sam asked about the choice of subject matter for each book.

Dan C had not initially wished to write about his experiences in Afghanistan. When he decided to write a war novel he read widely around the subject. He feels that the way war is currently viewed has changed readers expectations of the genre.

Jemma sees opinions about Israel polarising and extremism increasing. She was concerned that people were losing the ability to empathise with those considered other. They give impassioned views on whatever is going on but see issues in black and white. She wished to present some of the grey.

Dan M suggested that his story came together when Don became Donna. He chose to include fairytale imagery, to explain how when reality becomes too difficult fantasy offers an escape. His protagonist is not a distressed damsel locked in a high tower – she has chosen the isolation to keep others out.

Sam asked about each author’s experience of being published.

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This is Jemma’s second published novel, her first was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. Her concern for this one was if it would be as well received.

Dan C considered publication to be an astonishing anticlimax after the intense work required to get that far. He felt a sense of exhaustion, almost bereavement when the book was released into the world. The pleasure he gets from writing is the work he puts into his next novel.

Dan M talked of the pressure he felt after devoting so much time to the book, and the cost of this. He felt relief but also found it hard when he got to the stage where nothing could be changed.

The audience were invited to ask questions which delved into the authors’ writing processes and advice they would give to others.

Dan M wrote the first draft of his novel over an intense eight day period. Although he subsequently worked on the content, the heart of this remains. He was accepted by the first publisher he approached, a few hours after submission. (Is this a true fairytale ending?)

Jemma advised writers to get their ideas down first, ignoring their inner critique.

Dan C commented that he writes slowly and methodically which leads to less editing at the end. He did not recommend such an approach.

The final question to round up the evening came from Simon of Big Green Books who asked if the authors would like to be shortlisted for Not The Booker again.

Jemma suggested that she may prefer to be longlisted as this offers an opportunity for marketing without the public discussion.

Dan M pondered if the prize were best suited to early novels as it was a good way of gaining attention.

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I was grateful for the opportunity to chat briefly to the panel as they signed books purchased. Sam commented that he was pleased I had disagreed with his reviews, prompting me to comment that he critiques like an English teacher and we seemed to have different tastes. Afterwards I realised how daft I must have sounded. Sam is also co-director of Galley Beggar Press, and they have yet to publish any title that I have not absolutely adored.

 

Book Review: Chains of Sand

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Chains of Sand, by Jemma Wayne, tells the loosely connected stories of families whose lives are affected by the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. I know little about this highly contentious region, despite having worked on a kibbutz near Gaza many years ago. I had hoped that this book might offer some enlightenment.

From the minuscule knowledge I have of Jews I assumed that, apart from the black suited and hatted Orthodox variety, they were generally well educated and intelligent. I therefore struggled to empathise with these Jewish characters. They appeared overly bound to tradition, family and religion. Even those who believed themselves liberal struggled with the ties of ritual. They viewed themselves as Jews first, believing themselves assimilated in their host nation yet living largely amongst people like them.

Of course, we all gravitate to those who share similar values. Perhaps it was the incursion of religion that discomforted me.

The theme throughout the story is one of belonging and the disconnect some feel to the lives their loved ones expect them to live. Many young people rebel against the demands of the previous generation. This tale vividly demonstrates how difficult cultural bonds are to break.

Udi is an Israeli Jew born to Iraqi parents. He has been damaged by his experiences fighting for his country, as all young Jewish Israelis must do. He dreams of moving to England where a similarly aged cousin has made a prosperous life for himself. Udi compares this to his own prospects and plots his escape.

Daniel is a financially successful investment banker in London who believes a move to Israel could give his life the depth and meaning it lacks. His grandmother is a concentration camp survivor, his best friend a British Muslim. His sister is engaged to a gentile, a choice he supports but struggles to consider for himself.

Kaseem is an Arab Muslim living in Jerusalem. Despite graduating near the top of his university class he cannot find the work he expected his qualification to bring. He rails against the discrimination he must live with due to his race. When he meets the beautiful Dara, an artist from a supposedly liberal Jewish family, they both discover that prejudices are difficult to overcome.

The challenges of living in Israel are well evoked. The young people struggle with the responsibility they feel towards their families. However accepting the men may think themselves, they still expect to dominate. The girls are beautiful and strong but also tied to tradition. Only Udi’s sister, Avigail, seems willing to truly challenge the patriarchy, and she pays a terrible price.

Daniel’s family at first appears to have fitted in well to British society. As the story progresses it becomes clear that they choose to exist within the confines of a Jewish community. When Daniel decides to join a rally he cries out for peace whilst planning to join the Israeli army. The juxtaposition is telling.

The course of all the characters’ lives, the expectations they have for themselves and for those around them, was, for me, summed up as a metaphor in a comment made about birthday presents:

“Gifts are funny things. I know you’re meant to try to think of something the receiver would like, something they would want, nothing to do with you, but it never works that way. There’s always a not-so-subtle hint of the giver in there, an intimation of their perception of who the receiver is, or who they wish them to be.”

Each of the younger family members struggles with the disconnect between what they think they want and the mould their family is trying to push them into. The three young men’s view of themselves is a deception. Prejudices picked up from the cradle run deep.

Even though I was often discomforted by the content, the quality of the writing is impressive. These are difficult issues to explore and the author does not flinch from presenting differing points of view. Her sympathy appears to be with the Jews, but she vividly portrays Palestinian issues. Having said that, I feel no closer to understanding why this region evokes such widespread ire when the world is full of troublespots, or why the Jews have been singled out so often and by so many for persecution.

An interesting and challenging story that is well worth reading. I would now like to peruse more of this author’s work.