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: Walking the Lights

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Walking the Lights, by Deborah Andrews, takes the reader through a year in the life of recently graduated drama student Maddie McGuire. When the book opens Maddie is living in a squalid house share with her boyfriend, Mike. They exist on state benefits and short term loans, prioritising both legal and illegal drugs over food. They watch as others from their college course find work, unable to fathom how they will manage to make happen the big break they dream of.

Maddie harbours a deep resentment over her upbringing. She has vague, happy memories of her father who left the family home when she was young. She now wonders why he did not keep in touch, believing he cannot have cared. Her mother remarried and Maddie has always disliked her volatile stepfather. The feeling appears to be mutual.

Although now choosing to distance herself from her family, Maddie has a close circle of friends from her drama course who she can rely on. Amongst them is Jo. This young woman, unlike Maddie, is able and willing to seek out opportunities for work. She puts Maddie in touch with some of her contacts that her friend may find at least some casual employment from time to time. Maddie and Jo talk of putting on their own production, an adaptation of ‘The Tempest’, and Jo sets out to make it happen.

The story charts the progression of Maddie’s relationships with partners, family and friends. As each of the characters is developed the reader is offered scope to empathise, despite their flaws. I could not warm to Maddie though. Throughout the narrative she remained self centred and dependent. I wondered at her friends’ loyalty.

Maddie does not appear able to contemplate moving away from her home town of Glasgow. As an aspiring actress this struck me as odd. When she gets together with Alex and he ponders pursuing further education elsewhere she does not consider going with him. I wondered what tied her so tightly to a place which is presented as damp and drab, where the family she resents can demand attention and her career is in stasis. It is as if she is unwilling to grasp the life she claims to desire, waiting for others to provide.

The writing is abrupt in places, although the reader is offered vivid descriptions of the effects psychotic drugs have on the mind. Alex’s role is centralised and then sidelined. I was unclear as to why Maddie needed a friend to suggest she try to contact her father, why she did not think of this herself. I enjoyed the descriptive sections, it was the neediness and inertia Maddie portrayed that seemed at odds with her apparent talent and desire for more. Despite my reservations I was moved by the denouement.

This is an enjoyable enough read but lacked coherency and depth. The perspective offered on young actors lives is interesting, but ultimately the whole left be unsatisfied.