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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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.