Gig Review: Not The Booker Live

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Regular readers will be aware that I have been following this year’s Guardian newspaper Not The Booker Prize with interest. Having read each of the six shortlisted books, I summarised my thoughts here. I mused:

“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”

On Saturday I had the chance to find out when I travelled to London for my first visit to the Big Green Bookshop who, for the third year running, were hosting Not The Booker Live. This is a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian’s Sam Jordison and featuring as many of the authors on the shortlist as can get there on the night.

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The three who came along – Jemma Wayne (Chains of Sand), Dan Micklethwaite (The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote) and Dan Clements (What Will Remain) were those who are based in England. Dan M had travelled with an entourage from the far north. They contributed to what turned out to be an interesting discussion.

To start proceedings each author talked briefly about their book and gave a short reading.

Jemma considered her characters, although brought up within differing cultures and privilege, to feel a lack of control over their destinies. The cause they were expected to support was, to some of their family and peers, more important than truth. Their rebellion against expectation was the beginning of free thought.

Dan M explained that his initial idea had been to produce a reworking of Don Quixote. He read out the first chapter of his book as he felt this best explained what it was about.

Dan C considered through his story whether the damage caused to people by experience can sometimes not be fixed. His story of war looks at the lasting impacts on soldiers’ lives. He suggested that certain actions that appear foolish – such as blowing a compensation payment on a sports car or trip to Vegas – can also be life affirming. Good things in life may sometimes be denied to those who live too earnestly.

Sam then talked of the unique process this prize offers for readers. Unlike other literary prizes, the discussion of the shortlist is open to anyone who wishes to comment and is available for all to read. He asked how the authors felt about their books being selected.

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Dan M told us it felt like a really public workshopping of his novel.

Jemma appreciated the opportunity to reach new readers but felt it was best for publishers and new authors. She admitted to inviting friends and family to vote for her at the earlier stages. She wondered if certain commentators agreed with Sam’s reviews because they wished to be chosen as a judge. The process offers no filter. She found the comments interesting but bruising. It was only after returning to them after a few weeks that she could see the positives.

Sam asked about the choice of subject matter for each book.

Dan C had not initially wished to write about his experiences in Afghanistan. When he decided to write a war novel he read widely around the subject. He feels that the way war is currently viewed has changed readers expectations of the genre.

Jemma sees opinions about Israel polarising and extremism increasing. She was concerned that people were losing the ability to empathise with those considered other. They give impassioned views on whatever is going on but see issues in black and white. She wished to present some of the grey.

Dan M suggested that his story came together when Don became Donna. He chose to include fairytale imagery, to explain how when reality becomes too difficult fantasy offers an escape. His protagonist is not a distressed damsel locked in a high tower – she has chosen the isolation to keep others out.

Sam asked about each author’s experience of being published.

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This is Jemma’s second published novel, her first was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. Her concern for this one was if it would be as well received.

Dan C considered publication to be an astonishing anticlimax after the intense work required to get that far. He felt a sense of exhaustion, almost bereavement when the book was released into the world. The pleasure he gets from writing is the work he puts into his next novel.

Dan M talked of the pressure he felt after devoting so much time to the book, and the cost of this. He felt relief but also found it hard when he got to the stage where nothing could be changed.

The audience were invited to ask questions which delved into the authors’ writing processes and advice they would give to others.

Dan M wrote the first draft of his novel over an intense eight day period. Although he subsequently worked on the content, the heart of this remains. He was accepted by the first publisher he approached, a few hours after submission. (Is this a true fairytale ending?)

Jemma advised writers to get their ideas down first, ignoring their inner critique.

Dan C commented that he writes slowly and methodically which leads to less editing at the end. He did not recommend such an approach.

The final question to round up the evening came from Simon of Big Green Books who asked if the authors would like to be shortlisted for Not The Booker again.

Jemma suggested that she may prefer to be longlisted as this offers an opportunity for marketing without the public discussion.

Dan M pondered if the prize were best suited to early novels as it was a good way of gaining attention.

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I was grateful for the opportunity to chat briefly to the panel as they signed books purchased. Sam commented that he was pleased I had disagreed with his reviews, prompting me to comment that he critiques like an English teacher and we seemed to have different tastes. Afterwards I realised how daft I must have sounded. Sam is also co-director of Galley Beggar Press, and they have yet to publish any title that I have not absolutely adored.

 

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: What Will Remain

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What Will Remain, by Dan Clements, is ‘a war novel born out of the author’s own experiences of serving with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan’. It is visceral writing. The opening pages left me feeling punched in the gut, as I did watching the opening sequence of the film Saving Private Ryan. It is uncompromising and stunningly portrayed.

Told in the first person, the book consists of a series of vignettes which bring to life the daily challenges faced by foot soldiers serving on the front line of a battlefield far from all they have previously known. The men are on patrol, under attack, holed up in camps, coping with the death and disfigurement of comrades. There is fear, exhaustion, boredom and necessary camaraderie. This is no boy’s own flavour of war. Life on both sides of the conflict is debased.

Soldiers are trained to follow orders over instinct. Their mindsets must be altered to overcome primordial, life preserving fear. Once this has been achieved it is little wonder that they return home damaged. To move on they may need to put those they experienced such hell with aside. The shared memories can bring back unbearable pain.

“there are only these pieces left to me, scattered and disordered and incomplete, troubled orphan memories that find no solace in the grand old stories.”

The foot soldiers are directed by officers, disparaged by many for their remove from deadly action. When an act of heroism is picked out as worthy of honour, discomfort is felt. The hollow proclamations of the world mean little beside “every small and careful and honest thing that truly was accomplished, and at such awful cost.” If a soldier accepts a public honour must he also accept authorship of the rest?

Mention is made of how the Afghans treat their women, expecting them to stay at home to serve their husband and family. Afghan men have no qualms about claiming the right to beat their wives. I found it ironic that the soldiers valued their pornography and gifted each other posters of topless women with large breasts. They too regarded females as objects existing for their gratification.

Yet how can we who have never been made to experience war judge how those on the front line should behave? If their actions appear degenerate is it them or what they are forced to endure? By the end of the book the protagonist has returned to England, first to recuperate from injury and then to rejoin society. These later stories demonstrate how hard such adjustments can be.

The war poets express the futility of such conflicts. This tale brings home the mental as well as physical damage caused to individuals who chose to fight for their country, perhaps not understanding what soldiering would entail. Families who took pride in their partner or offspring’s achievements struggle to deal with them once returned. To cope the soldiers must try to forget.

“As a child you know nothing. As an adolescent you know everything. And the rest of your life is that slow, difficult process of unlearning all those things you once thought you knew.”

A searing depiction of war that challenges the popular notion of bravery. This is a challenging and captivating read.