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


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.