Reading the 2016 Guardian Not The Booker Prize Shortlist

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Each year the Guardian newspaper runs a book prize event alongside (but in no way affiliated to) the prestigious Man Booker Prize. To ensure that readers can tell the difference, they label their effort the Not The Booker Prize. Clever, eh?

Now, much as I admire the worthy titles selected for the (slightly) better known award, I enjoy the wider participation of the alternative which is, after all, its raison d’être. It came into being because some regarded the Man Booker Prize as elitist.

The Not The Booker Prize is no fly by night award. It has rules, and you may read them here: Terms and conditions for the Not the Booker prize 2016 | Books | The Guardian

This year, at the initial nomination stage, I put forward ‘The Many’ by Wyl Menmuir. Check out my review if you are interested in my thoughts on this dark, intense and strikingly written book: Review: The Many

The longlist contains all books nominated so lives up to its name. This year it contained 147 titles, many of which I had read and would happily recommend. I was canvassed for support by several of the authors and publishers, thankfully after I had entered my permitted two votes. My selection was not biased by wishing to help out my on line friends.

I chose to vote for ‘The Many’ and also ‘Epiphany Jones’ by Michael Grothaus. You may read my thoughts on this raw, unflinching and brilliant work here: Review: Epiphany Jones

Neither of these books made it through to the shortlist, although in the interim ‘The Many’ was selected for the Man Booker Prize longlist. I wondered what would have happened if it had won both prizes; could a book be both a Booker and a Not The Booker winner?

In the event the Not The Booker Prize shortlist contained six books I had never heard of before. As a fan of the independent presses the list delighted me and I eagerly set about sourcing it. I read in reverse alphabetical order by author, as suggested by the event organiser, Sam Jordison. My thoughts on each may be found by clicking their titles below.

Chains of Sand by Jemma Wayne

The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote by Dan Micklethwaite

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel

What Will Remain by Dan Clements

The Combinations by Louis Armand

Walking the Lights by Deborah Andrews

I have been summarising my thoughts on the Guardian website, adding comments after Sam has posted his reviews each week. He and many of the other commentators have been highly critical. 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.

As you can read above, my reactions have been mixed. There is a lot of good writing and storytelling, but overall it surprises me that these six books garnered the most votes in such an open contest. As an example, ‘The Combinations’ provides an astonishing literary journey for the reader but its sheer size and labyrinthian narrative must surely be off-putting for some. Yet it had a clear lead into the shortlist. I suspect this reflects the preferences of engaged Guardian readers.

I have enjoyed discovering books that I would not otherwise have come across but these are not, in my opinion, the best six books of the year. The process has highlighted the differences in opinion as to what makes a good book. Is it the quality of the writing? the originality? the weaving of the story? the lasting impact on the reader? the entertainment provided?  Reading the shortlist has been an interesting exercise, but not altogether a satisfying one.

The discussion continues on the Guardian website with the winner due to be announced, for both prizes, in mid October. If you read any of these books before the deadline, do please join the debate.

I am grateful to Equus Press for providing me with ‘The Combinations’, gratis, when I was unable to source a hard copy for myself.

Book Review: The Summer That Melted Everything

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“And so we stand, proved of our existence by those who see us. And how did I see Grand, how did any of us […] He always had to be what we wanted him to be first. He existed only by proxy to our dreams of him.”

The Summer That Melted Everything, by Tiffany McDaniel, is an exquisitely written tale of the tragedy of prejudice and herd mentality. Set in the town of Breathed, Ohio, during the long, hot summer of 1984, it centres around the Bliss family. Autopsy Bliss is a respected lawyer. His wife, an agoraphobic, is a loving mother to their their two sons. These boys, Grand and Fielding, have, up to this point, enjoyed their small town life. All that is about to change.

Their story is told from Fielding’s point of view, looking back on the summer he was thirteen years old from seventy years in the future. Early on it becomes clear that the events he will recount created a darkness in him. He sets the scene by describing the happy before, acknowledging that memories are coloured by time.

“What I’ve described is the town of my heart, not necessarily the town itself, which had an underbelly”

At the beginning of the summer Autopsy places an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting the devil to come to Breathed. With the start of the heatwave he arrives in the form of a small and ragged coloured boy named Sal. Fielding spots this devil outside the courthouse, although he questions Sal’s claim to his provenance. Fielding takes the boy home, after all it was his dad who extended the invitation. He is intrigued by the young stranger who speaks with a wisdom beyond his years.

“I knew he was old in the soul. A boy whose black crayon would be shortest in his box.”

The Bliss family welcome Sal but the townsfolk are less accepting, especially Grayson Elohim, a neighbour and steeplejack teaching Fielding his trade. Elohim whips up suspicion, blaming Sal for a series of misadventures. As the heat causes crops and tempers to fail, the townspeople’s concerns bubble over into something more sinister.

“People looked at him, listened to what he said. Being the devil made him important. Made him visible. And isn’t that the biggest tragedy of all? When a boy has to be the devil in order to be significant?”

Fielding’s previously close relationship with Grand fractures when he discovers his brother’s secrets. Sal has become his best friend but Fielding struggles with the love his mother offers this family interloper. When Sal falls in love with a local girl, a downward spiral of events gathers pace which will change Fielding forever.

The imagery is stunning, the prose lyrical, but the mood conjured up is overwhelmingly bleak. It feels as though Sal and then Fielding shoulder the weight of the world.

I cannot say that I enjoyed this book. The emotions evoked were too raw, too real. The writing is powerful and unflinching in its depiction of prejudice, intolerance, petty cruelties and casual hate. It is brilliant but harrowing. A literary tour de force that was painful to read.