TagMan Booker Prize

The Booker's (baker's) dozen 2014

It doesn’t seem a year since I was pleasantly surprised to see the second novel by one of my favourite new authors make the Man Booker Prize longlist. I didn’t dare think at the time that she would go on to win, but she did – so, as far as I’m concerned, this year’s Booker jury have a very tough act to follow.

Now we have a first glimpse of where the 2014 Man Booker Prize may go, with the publication of the longlist:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Now, it’s true that I’m not as invested in a single novel this year as I was with The Luminaries (I hadn’t read The Luminaries at this point last year, but I was anticipating it like nothing else), so I’m approaching this list in a more detached frame of mind. Still, though, I wish I could be more excited by this selection. The books that intrigue me most are the Kingsnorth (which is set shortly after the Battle of Hastings and written in a version of Old English) and the Smith (a ‘literary fresco’ – narrative layered on narrative?). The Mitchell could be interesting; the Powers and Fowler, maybe; the rest, I’m not really fussed about exploring.

Overall, at first blush, this feels like a longlist that’s playing it safe – a lot of major names, not a lot that sounds particularly unusual. I also find it disappointing that, after the Prize has been opened up to Anglophone writers of any nationality, we’ve ended up with a longlist that’s not very structurally diverse at all.

So I won’t be following the Booker too closely this year. There’s potential for an interesting shortlist, and I hope we get one – but I don’t see it reaching the heights of last year’s Prize.

2013 Man Booker shortlist

This year’s shortlist for the Man Booker Prize has been announced:

  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto and Windus)
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Granta)
  • Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador)
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
  • The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Penguin)

Of course, I’m delighted that The Luminaries has made it to the shortlist (click on the link above if you’d like to read more about why it is one of my favourite books of the year). More generally, I really like this as a shortlist: there are some interesting books, and it is properly diverse and international.

As to whether I’ll read the shortlist before the winner is announced on 15 October… I might have a go, actually; after all, I’ve read the longest one already, and most of the others are relatively short. I will update the above list with links to any reviews I write. In the meantime, congratulations to all the authors and publishers concerned.

The Booker’s (baker’s) dozen 2013

This year’s Man Booker Prize longlist is out, so let’s take a gander:

  • Tash Aw – Five Star Billionaire (Fourth Estate)
  • NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names (Chatto & Windus)
  • Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries (Granta)
  • Jim Crace – Harvest (Picador)
  • Eve Harris – The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Sandstone Press)
  • Richard House – The Kills (Picador)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland (Bloomsbury)
  • Alison MacLeod – Unexploded (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Colum McCann – TransAtlantic (Bloomsbury)
  • Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English (Mantle)
  • Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate)
  • Donal Ryan – The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland)
  • Colm Tóibín – The Testament of Mary (Viking)

I have read precisely none of those – not that that’s about to stop me from opining about the list…

Given that The Rehearsal remains my favourite of all the books I’ve read during the lifetime of this blog, I’m naturally very pleased to see Eleanor Catton on the longlist. The Luminaries has not been published yet, but it promises to be a great big tome set in the New Zealand goldrush of the 1860s, taking in astronomy, murder mysteries, and more besides. I’m really looking forward to it.

The other writer I am particularly pleased to see longlisted is Alison MacLeod. I know her more as a fine writer of short stories, but I’m certainly intrigued to read one of her novels. Unexploded, set in wartime Brighton, isn’t out yet either, so there’s not much more I can say there.

Looking at the list more generally, I think the range of author nationalities is nice to see. The Booker has perhaps been starting to look a mite parochial in recent years, having gone to well-established English authors for four years in a row. With only Jim Crace really fitting that description here, we may well see a different outcome this year.

The longlist is lighter on small-press titles than I’d have liked. There’s only really Sandstone Press (and congratulations to them on a second longlisting, following The Testament of Jessie Lamb a couple of years ago). You could add in Canongate, Granta and Bloomsbury as independent publishers, I suppose – but they’re not small presses in quite the same way. After such a strong showing for small publishers last year (And Other Stories, Myrmidon and Salt – half the shortlist), I can’t help feeling a little disappointed about that.

Which of the books would I most like to read? Taking the Catton and MacLeod books as givens… The Kills has me especially intrigued – a vast political thriller cross-pollinated with a literary mystery, which was first published as a series of enhanced ebooks with added audio and video. Five Star Billionaire and We Need New Names sound interesting. I’ve heard so many good things about A Tale for the Time Being that I really ought to give it a go… That’s a full shortlist right there.

Prize winners: Booker and beyond

The 2012 Man Booker Prize has been awarded to Hilary Mantel for her novel Bring Up the Bodies.

Now seems a good time to catch up on some of the other literary awards I’ve featured on here recently.

The BBC International Short Story Award went to Miroslav Penkov for ‘East of the West’

The SI Leeds Literary Prize went to Minoli Salgado for A Little Dust on the Eyes.

Congratulations to all!

Man Booker and SI Leeds Literary Prize shortlists

The Booker shortlist was announced this morning:

  • Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon)
  • Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories)
  • Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
  • Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)
  • Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)
  • Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber and Faber)

I can’t really judge the quality of that shortlist, because I’ve read only two of them. I very much enjoyed The Lighthouse, so I’m pleased to see it on there (my review is linked above). I read Swimming Home last year and, though I didn’t warm to it personally, enough people have praised the book since that I feel inclined to revisit it at some point.

More generally, this shortlist is an enormous vote of confidence in British independent publishers – all three of the small presses on the longlist (Myrmidon, And Other Stories, and Salt) have made it through to the final six. I think that’s great news. This also seems a shortlist that’s in favour of unconventional approaches, which is interesting.

Which novel might win? The Mantel will probably be the favourite, but it looks to me like something of an odd one out on this list. I think the Self is a more likely front-runner – though actually I wouldn’t be surprised if the Levy or Moore books took the Prize. We’ll find out when the winner is announced on Tues 16 October.

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I want to mention another literary award shortlist, which was announced yesterday. The SI Leeds Literary Prize is for unpublished fiction by Black and Asian women. Its six shortlisted titles are:

  • Katy Massey, The Book of Ghosts
  • Emily Midorikawa, A Tiny Speck of Black and Then Nothing
  • Karen Onojaife, Borrowed Light
  • Minoli Salgado, A Little Dust on the Eyes
  • Anita Sivakumaran, The Weekend for Sex, and other stories
  • Jane Steele, Storybank: The Milkfarm Years

The winner will be revealed on Weds 3 Oct at Ilkley Playhouse, as part of Ilkley Literature Festival.

Book notes: Alison Moore and Christopher Coake

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (2012)

Time for my first foray into this year’s Man Booker longlist. Alison Moore’s name came to my attention when I read her short story ‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ a couple of years ago. Her debut novel, The Lighthouse, shares that earlier tale’s unsettling atmosphere and intense focus on detail.

A man named Futh travels from England to Germany on a walking holiday to take his mind off the end of his relationship with Angela. Instead, he dwells on the past: his uneasy relationship with his womanising father; his friend Kenny’s mother, who didn’t act quite as you’d expect of a friend’s mother; those rocky times with Angela. Lighthouses are a recurring metaphor: the lighthouse-shaped perfume case belonging to his mother that Futh now carries, though it’s empty; the lighthouse Futh saw on a childhood holiday to Cornwall, and wondered ‘how there could be this constant warning of danger…and yet still there was all this wreckage’ (p. 56).

There was plenty of ‘warning’ when Futh was growing up, but it doesn’t seem to have made him much wiser about relationships. Similarly, Moore’s secondary protagonist, bed-and-breakfast owner Ester, is apparently stuck in a destructive cycle of having liaisons with her guests, and hiding the fact from her husband Bernard, who’s lost all interest in her. The narrative loops back and forth to different periods in the characters’ lives, gradually revealing more – all in precise, evocative prose. The Lighthouse is a fine first novel that deserves the extra attention it’s going to get from its Booker longlisting.

Elsewhere
Alison Moore’s website
The publisher, Salt Publishing
Some other reviews of The Lighthouse: Adam Roberts; Words of Mercury; Culture and Anarchy; Emily Cleaver for Litro.

Christopher Coake, You Came Back (2012)

I’d call Christopher Coake’s debut novel a ghost story, but really it’s more about believing in ghosts – which, in You Came Back, is partly a symbol of hanging on to the past. Coake’s protagonist is Mark Fife, who’s rebuilding his life several years after his young son Brendan died, and he separated from Brendan’s mother Chloe. Now, Mark is in a new relationship, with Allison; he’s contemplating proposing to her when the owner of his old house turns up, claiming that the house is haunted by Brendan’s ghost. What does it mean for Mark – and his relationship with Chloe – if that turns out to be true?

You Came Back works well enough as a portrait of parents’ dealing with life after bereavement. But what I particularly like about Coake’s novel is the elegant way that it can be read both literally and metaphorically. Take it literally, and you have an examination of how Chloe, Mark, and their relationships with others are affected by the possibility that Brendan somehow survives. Read the novel metaphorically, and it’s a story of grieving parents who won’t let go, even if that means dragging everyone else they love down with them. On top of this, You Came Back does not shirk its responsibilities as a work of suspense; Coake leaves open to the end the question of whether there really is a ghost. After all, the whole novel is concerned with what people might do when faced with something they’re almost certain is not true – but can’t help thinking that it could be.

Elsewhere
Christopher Coake’s website
Some other reviews of You Came Back: Little Words; Chasing Bawa; Dana Stevens for Slate; Christopher Bundy.

The Booker’s dozen 2012

I promised myself that I’d pay more attention to the Man Booker Prize this year than I have previously. Here are my initial thoughts on the twelve books in the 2012 longlist:

Nicola Barker, The Yips

Barker is a previous Booker shortlistee (for Darkmans in 2007), though I’ve never read her myself. The Yips is a comedy set in 2006, revolving around a golfer who’s losing his touch. I’ve heard praise for this book, but the extract I read did not encourage me to investigate further.

Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident

When I heard about Beauman’s debut novel, Boxer, Beetle, I was intrigued; when I read it, I was disappointed. The blurb for The Teleportation Accident (‘a historical novel that doesn’t know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on…’) makes it sound right up my street; but I read the extract, see the familiar prose style, and remember last time…

André Brink, Philida

Brink’s name was new to me, but he was shortlisted twice for the Booker in the 1970s. Philida is the story of a slave’s journey across 1830s South Africa in order to escape the fate which has been laid out for her. That could be interesting – I can’t find an extract of Philida online, but I’d be inclined to try the book out.

Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists

It’s always a pleasure to see books from small presses on award lists; Newcastle’s Myrmidon publishes the first of three here. The novel itself concerns a female Malay judge and an exiled Japanese gardener in post-war Malaya. It seems to have been well received, and could be worth a look.

Michael Frayn, Skios

Frayn was previously shortlisted for the Booker in 1999; his current novel concerns a scientific conference on its titular Greek island. I read an extract and was charmed by the prose style – definitely a book I’d be interested to read.

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

A candidate for breakout debut of the year, Joyce’s book is one of two on the longlist that I’ve already read. I’ve also reviewed it here: I thought the novel good, particularly in the way it balances eccentricity and seriousness – but I didn’t have it down as a Booker contender.

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home

And here’s the second longlistee that I’ve read. It’s particularly gratifying to see a title from And Other Stories being recognised by the Booker – they started only last year, and have an exciting community-based publishing model that deserves to succeed. It seems almost churlish to note that Swimming Home left me cold, but other people with good taste have thought very highly of it.

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that this would be shortlisted, given Mantel’s Booker win in 2009. I wouldn’t contemplate reading Bring Up the Bodies without reading Wolf Hall first; but the extract I looked at suggests a very good book. I still find it hard to conceive of this winning, though.

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse

The second of four debuts on the longlist, and the third and final small press title (this time from Salt). I was both surprised and pleased to see The Lighthouse listed, partly because I didn’t know about it, and partly because I so enjoyed Moore’s Nightjar chapbook a couple of years ago. This is going straight on my to-read list.

Will Self, Umbrella

I’ve never read a Will Self book before (only his piece in the Granta Horror issue) and, from what I’ve heard of Umbrella’s layout (400 pages of unbroken paragraphs), I doubt this is a suitable place to start. I can’t really say more than that.

Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

The third debut novel, this one centring on a Bombay opium den. Based on the extract I’ve read, I’m undecided about Narcopolis.

Sam Thompson, Communion Town

Any novel which comes with comparisons to David Mitchell and Italo Calvino, and a cover quote from China Miéville, is one I want to investigate. CommunionTown looks as though it could have shades of Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris as well, which is no bad thing. The fourth longlisted debuts also joins my to-read list.

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What to make of that list overall, then? It’s a good balance between new and established names; decent enough in terms of gender diversity; less so in its diversity of ethnicity and nationality.

At this point, I certainly want to read The Lighthouse and Communion Town, and am very much inclined to read Skios. I don’t so much want to read The Teleportation Accident as to have read it. The rest, I could take or leave.

How about you, reader – what are your thoughts on the longlist?

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011)

So this is the Booker winner: a slim meditation on the fallibility of memory and the limits to how much one person can know of another. It may or may not have been the best title on the Booker shortlist; it surely wasn’t the best novel that was eligible for this year’s prize, and I doubt it is the pinnacle of Julian Barnes’s fiction – but, taken on its own terms, The Sense of an Ending is a perfectly fine piece of work.

Our narrator is retiree Tony Webster, who spends the book’s first third giving us a potted history of his life as he remembers it, or at least of those parts most relevant to the story at hand. Tony recalls becoming friends with the serious-minded and brilliant Adrian Finn at school, and later falling in love with a girl named Veronica Ford at university. Tony never quite felt at ease with Veronica, felt when he met her family for a brief weekend that he was being judged as inadequate – and it wasn’t too long before Veronica called off the relationship and started seeing Adrian Finn. At the age of 22, Adrian killed himself; why was not clear, but the notes he left suggest that he’d reached his decision through a typically logical thought process.

In the present day, Tony has not had any contact with Veronica or her family for many years, but receives a lawyer’s letter indicating that her mother Sarah has died and bequeathed him a small sum of money, and a document which, Tony learns, is Adrian Finn’s diary. That diary, however, is currently being held by Veronica; Tony sets out to make contact with her and find out what’s in the diary, how Sarah Ford came to have it, and why she might now have given it to him. Whatever answers Tony might imagine those questions to have, the reality of them still takes him by surprise.

As he begins his reflections, Tony observes that what we remember of the past may not be what actually happened, and we see the optimistic certainties of his schooldays give way to the realisation in later life of how little he knows, and concomitant speculation on what might have happened in the gaps:

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others. (p. 80)

The present-day Tony certainly does invent pasts for others: when he makes initial contact with Veronica’s brother Jack, Tony imagines the path which the young man he met briefly might have taken to become the person now suggested by his emails. This relatively insignificant speculation becomes something more serious when Tony tries to work out what may have happened between Veronica and Adrian, when the former is so unforthcoming, and the latter forever frozen in time as that brilliant young man. And the truth, of both others’ pasts and Tony’s own, remain slippery to the protagonist.

‘What did I know of life,’ asks Tony, ‘I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him?’ (p. 142) Maybe not so much about other people’s lives, given everything he learns; but Tony certainly knows something of the shape of life, and how we come to see and understand (or not to understand) it. Furthermore (though he may not realise it), Tony has complexities of his own analogous to those of the people from his past, in that the way he presents himself is not everything we see him to be.

Barnes’s novel is a little too essayistic at times in the way it treats Tony’s ruminations; but, as a whole, The Sense of an Ending embodies its concerns well. I’m pleased that its Booker listing (and subsequent win) brought the book to my attention.

Elsewhere
Julian Barnes’s website
Some other reviews of The Sense of an Ending: Lizzy’s Literary Life; @Number71; Asylum.

Thoughts on the Literature Prize

I’ve been following with interest – and some bemusement – the kerfuffle surrounding the shortlist (and the longlist before it) of this year’s Man Booker Prize. There was a fair amount of commentary (not necessarily by people who had read the books) to the effect that the judges had somehow failed in their task to select the titles they considered the best from the pool of submissions (in some quarters, opinion seemed to be that the judges had failed in their task to shortlist The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst). These arguments struck me as unconvincing because they sought to dismiss the shortlist (or longlist) out of hand, rather than engage with the books selected.

One of the key points of contention has concerned comments made by the judges on the ‘readability’ of their choices; this issue surfaced again today in the announcement of the Literature Prize, a new award being positioned as an alternative to the Booker. In the words of the Prize’s board, as reported by The Bookseller:

[The Literature Prize] will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of…expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition…For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize’s administrator and this year’s judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement…

I think there’s something of a false opposition being made, there, between the concepts of ‘readability’ and ‘artistic achievement’ (isn’t a novel of any stripe a failure if it doesn’t make its readers want to turn the page?); but, more than this, the Literature Prize feels – from its name downwards – like a kneejerk reaction to this year’s Booker shortlist. One shortlist – one jury’s definition of ‘best’ – with which you disagree does not make the entire enterprise flawed.

I wish the Literature Prize well, and hope it brings to light some excellent and interesting books; but I also hope it can come to a more positive and robust sense of what it wants to achieve.

Man Booker shortlist 2011

The shortlist for the Booker Prize has been announced, and here it is:

  • Juiian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
  • Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie
  • Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers
  • Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues
  • Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English
  • A.D. Miller, Snowdrops

I still haven’t read any of these books myself, and so can’t add much more to my original thoughts on the longlist. But I will share my thoughts on hearing the shortlist.

Overall, I find this year’s Man Booker shortlist surprising and interesting. The Barnes sounded a typical ‘Booker novel’, and it’s no surprise to me to see it here; the same goes for Pigeon English, which seems to have been featured and talked about all over the place this year. I couldn’t make a call on the Edugyan, but the other three shortlisted titles certainly sounded less obviously ‘literary’ (I appreciate I’m making crude judgements here) than I would traditionally associate with the Booker.

Though I may be surprised with the shortlist, I’m also pleased, as I think it makes for rather a diverse selection of books. Also, three of the four books I named in my longlist post as those I most wanted to read have made it on to the shortlist, so I may well read at least some of the shortlist before the announcement of the winner on 18th October (any reviews will, as ever, be linked in the list above).

Congratulations to all six nominees; I wonder who will win.

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