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: 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.