On being a judge for Not The Booker Prize 2017

Not The Booker 2017.

I nominated, voted, tweeted regularly to encourage other readers to participate. When the shortlist was announced I read each book carefully, posted my reviews, commented BTL as Sam Jordison’s thoughts were published on the Guardian news site. And then, after all titles had been assessed, dissected without anaesthetic, and one had even withdrawn, I received an email inviting me to be a judge. I agreed. How could I turn such an opportunity down? I was delighted, excited, and somewhat daunted that I was to appear live on national media.

The judges meeting was to take place via a Google Hangout – I had no idea what this involved. I do not use Skype, rarely even telephone, preferring written to spoken word. I live in a rural location as far from the box of tricks that supplies our village internet as it is possible to be. The chance of user error, or an unavoidable technical hitch, was high.

Unusually for me I didn’t think too much about any of this until the morning it was all to happen, 4am in the morning to be precise – ah the joys of an anxious mind.

Naturally I got my equipment and location set up hours in advance of need. I tried to keep busy until the appointed hour that I would not get in a tiz. It transpired that everyone else encountered last minute technical issues, everyone except me.

With laptop and mobile phone at the ready, crib notes prepared and taped at eye level, I donned my son’s gaming headset which he had kindly set up for my machine. And then I awaited my promised hangout invitation. With just a couple of clicks I was connected to London, live and available for public viewing.

This is how the judges meeting went.

Many congratulations to Winnie M. Li for winning the public vote and that of judge Hannah, thereby securing the prize for Dark Chapter. Both Yvain and I chose Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige. I also commended Not Thomas by Sara Gethin, and Yvain talked highly of The Threat Level Remains Severe by Rowena MacDonald. All of us agreed it has been a strong year, better than the previous, and that reading the shortlist has been a pleasure.

Would I agree to judge a literary prize again? Despite my nervousness at appearing in public like this, yes please.

 

Gig Review: Not The Booker Live 2017

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of attending an author event with a difference – Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. This annual event brings together the authors shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s inimitable prize, and Sam Jordison, who is tasked with reviewing each book and thereby starting the BTL conversation via the Guardian online. Sam is known for his sometimes scathing opinions. Whilst as a reader it is refreshing to encounter such honesty amongst the sometimes bland and repetitive appraisals of books, for the authors who have poured their souls into their creations they can be difficult to deal with. This was demonstrated last month when one of the shortlisted authors, Ann O’Loughlin, withdrew her book after it received a slew of negative comments on the Guardian site. The fans who got her there remained largely silent.

Of the remaining five authors, four attended the live event. Missing was Elizabeth Strout whose book was included as a wildcard entry  in a new idea being trialled this year. As she is based in America and does not appear to have paid much attention to her shortlisting, her absence was not unexpected.

There was a half hour delay in starting as attendees gathered from near and far, giving earlier arrivals a chance to mingle and chat. When proceedings finally got underway we were treated to author summaries of the books followed by short readings.

Winnie M Li, author of Dark Chapterexplained that her book was marketed as crime but was strongly autobiographical. She wished to present the rape at the story’s heart from the point of view of both victim and perpetrator, to explore what could drive a fifteen year old to such violence. Since her own horrific attack, which changed the course of her life, she has become an activist for opening up discussion on the lasting effects of sexual assault. She lost her job due to PTSD.

Sara Gethin, author of Not Thomas, had been wanting to tell her story, of child neglect from the child’s point of view, for many years. As a primary school teacher in areas where child deprivation, including violence on the fringes of their young lives, was common she based her narrator, five year old Tomos, on an amalgam of the children she encountered. Although an established author of children’s books under her real name, Wendy White, this is her first novel for adults.

Rowena MacDonald, author of The Threat Level Remains Severe, set her book, a tale of a love triangle between three House of Commons back office staff members, at her place of work. She took elements from her own experiences – the stalker thread has been dramatised but is based on fact. She does not consider herself to be like her female protagonist. She described the plot as a sort of black comedy, thriller – hard to categorise. She expressed humoured regret that the House of Commons is now much more demanding and professional than is depicted.

Harriet Paige, author of Man With A Seagull On His Head, described her book as the story of an accidental artist, although she told us she knows little about art. It follows the lives of a lowly council worker and the unknown woman who becomes his muse following the titular event. It is not based on any incidents from her life. She prefers not to write people she knows into her stories for fear of causing offence.

There followed a discussion on creativity and how difficult it is to get a book noticed by readers.

Harriet and Rowena have been friends since they met on a creative writing MA at Warwick University. Winnie has also completed an MA, at Goldsmiths. Each were pleased and surprised to reach the shortlist as this has helped sales. Although affected by the very public criticisms, particularly from commentators who have not read the book but simply quote from Sam’s reviews, there has also been pleasure when unknown readers have come to their defence. It has been good to encounter a wider readership than just amongst their friends and cheerleaders.

The prize is also useful in generating a wider discussion of books, especially from the small presses. Sara’s publisher, Honno, has existed for thirty years, publishing around seven books each year written by women with a connection to Wales. This shortlisting has been a positive for them.

The difficulty of getting noticed by a national newspaper was discussed. Those who had been reviewed or interviewed prior to the shortlisting each achieved this by calling in personal connections. Sam mentioned that the Guardian receives around four hundred books a week and struggles even to open every package. There was regret amongst authors and audience that national newspapers and similar traditional publications are still regarded as holding such sway. Sam voiced the opinion that this was because their reviews are better written than on other sites such as blogs (thanks for that Sam).

There was then time for a few questions to the panel.

A gentleman asked how the authors coped with revisiting trauma day after day in order to write about it. All seemed to agree that writing a book is never an easy undertaking. Sara took fourteen years, dipping in and out, to complete Not Thomas. She used music – Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’ – to put her into Tomos’s world when she sat down to further his story. Winnie wrote her two protagonists turn about to lessen the individual impact and help her concentrate on the creative process. She had wanted to be a writer for many years and was advised that her debut needed to have impact. Her next book will be much less personal. All wish to write further books.

The discussion at this event was unusual in allowing random input from both audience and panel in what felt like a book club meeting as much as an author event. The intimate setting and apparently relaxed participants undoubtedly helped.

Time was called at 9pm and I had to rush away from what looked to be ensuing one to one conversations. I had a bus to catch if I was to make it home. I hope many books were bought after I left.

At midnight this evening (Sunday 15th October) public voting will close on the Not The Booker shortlist so do please vote for the winner now! As one of the chosen judges I will be live on line tomorrow morning to help choose the recipient of the coveted mug.

Not Thomas is publisher by Honno Press

Dark Chapter is published by Legend Press

The Threat Level Remains Severe is published by Aardvark Bureau

Man With A Seagull On His Head is published by Bluemoose Books

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.

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: 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: The Threat Level Remains Severe

The Threat Level Remains Severe, by Rowena MacDonald, takes a wry look at life in corporate and political London. Set within the musty Palace of Westminster, its protagonists are lowly office workers looking for fulfilment, both personally and in their careers. Their coming together provides a lighthearted tale overflowing with sardonic humour. It is a contemporary, mocking yet poignant drama set within the supposed corridors of power.

Grace Ambrose has worked as an assistant to Hugo, the chairman of The Economic Scrutiny Committee, for seven years. She was offered the job when she temped at the office following her graduation, while she was trying to decide what she wanted to do next. She still hasn’t quite made that decision. Grace works alongside Rosemary, her senior in rank as well as years. Their jobs are straightforward, undemanding and secure. They are also interminably dull.

Australian go-getter, Brett Beamish, joins the team from the Treasury as an economics specialist. With his carefully cultivated image, business trainee vocabulary and self-satisfied demeanour he is the personification of management cliché. He is portrayed as a shiny package, smug and soulless. He struggles to understand why Grace presents herself as she does when it is not what he believes men will admire. To him, what others think is a vitally important consideration.

Grace mocks Brett’s attempts to modernise their working environment. His breakout area, whiteboard and colour coded desk arrangements are the antithesis of their surrounding wood panelled antiquity. Brett sets out to bond with Grace as team building dictates. Her tepid work ethic is beyond his comprehension.

On Brett’s first day in the office Grace receives an unsolicited email from a stranger. Reuben Swift tells her that she has amazing beauty and her lonely heart soaks up the flattery. Over the coming weeks he writes her poetry, sends her song recordings and photographs, playing to her arty ideals. She is wary but also intrigued. She wants them to meet.

The story progresses as Brett succeeds in bonding the team, they get ejected from a private members club, and fists are wielded on the roof of the palace leading to an arrest. The narrative viewpoint then switches to Reuben. A court case follows. The timeline jumps forward to where the characters end up next.

Although Reuben and Brett appear so different there are marked similarities in their desire to rise above their place in society at birth. Grace has the outward appearance of a left leaning hippy but is as uninspired in her middle class social and political opinions as she is about work. When she complains about the rampant paperwork generated by the workings of a democracy Brett teases that she would prefer a dictatorship:

‘It would be OK if I was the dictator.’

‘Dictatorships are always OK if you’re the dictator. What kind of dictator would you be?’

‘A benevolent one, I expect.’

‘One that insisted on north London liberal values on pain of death?’

I found the first section of this book, a little over half of the story, the most fun. The second provided an alternative viewpoint but felt somewhat far fetched. The court case and denouement wound the story up efficiently. They were easy to read but lacked the delicious humour of the earlier chapters.

This is a reminder of the shallow pretensions many cultivate, how people convince themselves that they are better than their personal concerns allow. The slow grind of politics gave me more faith in the system than media portrays. Grace and Brett are amusing constructs with their ambitions and contradictions.

Entertaining and original, showing life in the capital from a refreshingly honest viewpoint, this is an enjoyable, even if not entirely satisfying, read.

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

 

The Threat Level Remains Severe 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: The Ludlow Ladies’ Society

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, by Ann O’Loughlin, is a romance – one of the few genres I avoid. Bear this in mind when reading my review, especially if you are a fan of such stories. I am aware that there are many who enjoy the escapism of the happy ever after. Of all imaginative possibilities this is one I struggle to suspend reason for, even to facilitate story telling.

The tale is set in the small Irish town of Rosdaniel, County Wicklow. The town’s big house and its estate had been occupied by generations of the Brannigan family until a few years before. Financial mismanagement led to repossession and Ludlow Hall was bought by an American who subsequently died. Now his widow, Connie, has arrived hoping to discover why her husband sank their money into the property without telling her. The town still regards Ludlow Hall as the home of Eve, who was evicted by the banks when they acted to recover the debts her husband bequeathed.

Another widow in the town, Hetty, makes up the trio of women forming the backbone of the tale. All have tragic personal histories that are slowly revealed. The women come together thanks to the eponymous society that regularly meets to gossip and sew quilts. The women plan to enter their creations in a competition, the winners of which will have the opportunity to meet the American First Lady when she visits Ireland in just a few weeks time.

Eve is introduced as a seamstress who is unkindly judgemental about her clients. Finishing off the hemming on a skirt she ponders:

“Mary McGuane would hardly do it justice with her thick waist […] The red colour was too bright for a heavy woman.”

That larger woman should not be permitted to wear whatever they want did not endear Eve to me. Much later in the book Hatty appears to have similar concerns about appearance when Connie is preparing to meet an old friend:

“Last week she had gone to Arklow on Hetty’s insistence and had her hair coloured and cut.”

Given the trials and tribulations these women have suffered, and the strength they have shown in surviving and moving on, such superficial concerns diminished their supposedly supportive female friendships. After the emotional abuse their husbands subjected them to as a means of control it would have been refreshing to have them accepted just as they are.

There is much death and darkness in the story; the women have been badly used by their spouses. With this in mind I wondered why they would seek a replacement, why they would believe happiness could be found with another man. They cite love yet also recognise that they once loved those who caused them pain. This is the main flaw I find in romantic fiction, the lack of learning from experience.

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society is making quilts for the competition. When they decide the theme is to be memory they set aside their off-cuts and seek clothing donations with a personal history. Eve and Hatty in particular cut squares from high quality clothes that could have benefited others which seemed such a waste. I struggled to empathise with much of this tale.

The writing flows and the progression of the plot is well measured. The reveals maintain interest despite there being few surprises. For romance fans, especially those who enjoy crafts such as sewing, I suspect this could be an engaging read. As it was voted onto the shortlist I did my best to remain open minded but it was not a book for me.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.

 

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society 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: Dark Chapter

Dark Chapter, by Winnie M Li, is the story of a rape. Told from the points of view of both the victim and the perpetrator, the subject matter has been informed by an assault the author suffered which changed the course of her life. The narrative is detailed, stark and harrowing. The portrayal of a sordid lifestyle within the Irish Traveller community withering.

Vivian Tan is a Taiwanese-American living in London. A Harvard graduate, she works for a film production company in the city. Her work is demanding but enables her to live in a flat share overlooking the river. She enjoys socialising with her many friends; travelling both for business and pleasure. Often she will take the opportunity of visiting a new country to hike alone and discover quiet places where she may admire natural vistas. She enjoys the challenge and feeling of accomplishment that comes from being independent.

On a trip to Belfast Vivian sets out on a hike from the west of the city towards Cave Hill. A young Irish Traveller, Jonny, spots her on the trail and decides he will have sex with her. His rough upbringing, where domestic assault was routine and casual theft expected, has led him to consider good looking girls fair game. He boasts to his friends of his conquests, feeling no shame that his victims were forced, often violently, to accept attentions that satisfy the cravings he feeds with pornography, first offered to him at a young age.

The timeline jumps back and forth between the protagonists’ childhoods, the attack, and the aftermath. The writing is precise and measured with no shirking from graphic detail. Jonny is shown to be incapable of understanding how his victims are feeling. Vivian is shattered by her experience and by the painful process of seeking what passes for justice when she refuses to quietly shoulder her ordeal.

This is a powerful account of a crime that is too often maligned and misunderstood. For this alone it could be regarded as an important work. In deriving empathy for the unremitting and ongoing horror it can also, in places, overwhelm. The bitter undercurrent and raw pain, although understandable, are challenging to read.

 

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

 

Dark Chapter 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: Not Thomas

Not Thomas, by Sara Gethin, is told from the point of view of five year old Tomos, who lives with Mammy and Brick in Wales. Mammy and Tomos used to live with Nanno and Dat, and Tomos misses them a lot. Nanno fed him good food and wrote him letters. Dat made him a train table that he still plays with even though the trains have been taken away. Nanno and Dat’s house was filled with stories and songs; now Tomos spends much of his time alone. He knows he mustn’t open the door when Mammy isn’t there so when the lady comes knocking, or the man with the web tattoo, he hides behind the big chair and waits for them to go away.

Tomos likes his teacher at the school he attends since the move. Miss is kind and smells nice, unlike the people who frequent his home. Miss shares her lunch with Tomos when her husband has made her too much, telling him that he is being helpful. The other children tell him he is stinky. Mammy calls him Stupid Boy.

Sometimes Tomos has fish fingers for tea but often all he can find in the cupboards are crisps. He likes the food at school and takes seconds when offered. His new friend, Wes, tells him school dinners are yucky and he should bring a packed lunch. Wes also tells Tomos about the DVDs his uncle watches. He enjoys putting thoughts into Tomos’s head that give him nightmares, and then running away.

The reader experiences Tomos’s life through his eyes whilst understanding the aspects that a five year old child cannot comprehend. The hunger, cold and neglect he suffers are harsh enough but the more immediate dangers he is subjected to when Brick’s associates visit make this a tense read. Tomos is known by social services to be at risk. Their stretched resources and need for proof before intervening are starkly portrayed.

Set in a small community where residents have grown up together, sometimes in equally challenging circumstances, there are memories of how people were before the drugs and alcohol took hold. Loyalties and a desire to protect their own lead to difficult choices, with outcomes that may be causing more damage than good. Old at nineteen, Mammy has already made accusations to get what she wants, using her son as leverage. Trying to help Tomos risks reputations as well as hard won careers.

The author has captured the inner voice of the child whilst retaining the flow of an adult story. Although incidents of extreme violence are graphically depicted there is no sensationalism.

The possibility of other life choices in a neighbourhood rife with hardship is touched upon, effectively lifting a narrative that could have become overwhelmingly bleak. The author writes with compassion and empathy but also practicality. There is nothing mawkish about this tale.

This is the human face of contemporary child poverty where the kindness of others, the refusal to look away, can make the difference between life and death. A difficult subject woven into a darkly engaging story. A recommended read.

 

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

 

Not Thomas 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.

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.