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: 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.