Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (2017) – A Man Booker Longlist Review


The seventh novel by Pakistan-born London resident Kamila Shamsie, a former Granta Best Of Young British novelist, feels particularly relevant to our world today.  Perhaps more than the other Man Booker longlisted novels I’ve read so far this feels especially for our times, with the most relevance to our modern lives.  Strange then, that this is based upon one of the oldest recorded stories, the Greek myth of Antigone, most famously written as a tragic play by Sophocles in about 442 BC.

I didn’t know the myth beforehand and I’m actually rather glad I didn’t, although it did make me want to seek it out once I’d finished Shamsie’s adaptation.  I went with one of her recommended versions and listened on spoken word CD to another 2017 Man Booker longlisted author Ali Smith who narrates her children’s book “The Story Of Antigone” (2013).  In an interview following the story she says of this source material;

“It’s the kind of story that will always be relevant for all sorts of reasons because some things never change no matter what century we’re in and no matter where we are in history and it is a story about what matters to human beings and how human beings make things meaningful and how we act towards one another and what power is, what it makes us do and how much or how little power human beings really have.”

 I’m not actually going to tell you more about the myth as it will give too much information as to where Shamsie’s plot-line will go.  If you know it, you know it.  If not I don’t want to spoil things for you as developments certainly took me by surprise.  It does involve a chilling attempt to stand up against the authorities.

Shamsie has recast the main characters as a Muslim family from Wembley.  Isma, the oldest daughter begins the novel by travelling to the US to commence a long-delayed Sociology PHD leaving her younger law student sister Aneeka at home and Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz removed from the family.  Isma had been a mother figure to the twins after they were orphaned.  We learn early on that their father had died whilst being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

Isma is attempting to pick up the pieces after family tragedies and the shame and distrust caused.  She has a chance encounter with a family acquaintance, Eammon, son of a British Muslim politician whose career, after setbacks, is in the ascendancy.  On Eamonn’s return to the UK he offers to take a bag of M&M’s to Aneeka setting up a catalogue of events which will lead to tragedy and a startling international incident.

I read very few books as explicitly political as this and did find it difficult to hone in as to what my feelings were or the author’s stance on incidents.  This is because the issues are extremely complex and involves the prejudices of nations, the power of religions and the media.  Shamsie is certainly to be applauded for her bravery in tackling these themes head-on.  The fact that she does it pitch-perfectly in a tale which is brilliantly realised, both unpredictable and chillingly inevitable borders on the extraordinary.  I found it totally compelling to read but harder to always gauge my responses.  Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.  Although I wasn’t aware of the relevance to Antigone as I was  reading, it does give the work resonance and great authority.  So here we have it, my first 5 star Man Booker longlist read.  The battle is on…………..


Home Fire was published by Bloomsbury Circus in August 2017



Autumn- Ali Smith (2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review


Ali Smith is attempting to make her 4th appearance on the Man Booker Shortlist with this longlisted title, her first novel since winning the Baileys Prize and the Costa Novel Of The Year with “How To Be Both” (2014).  That was the only novel I have read by her to date and although I applauded its technical expertise I caught a whiff of style over substance and found it ultimately a little disappointing because I lacked a consistent emotional attachment, which is what I’m always on the lookout for when reading.  Smith is a brave writer whose non-linear narratives can lead to a distancing and if slightly off-balance risks becoming a tad pretentious and ending up with a book of segments of writing (in her case often superb) rather than a coherently flowing piece.

 With that in mind, theories based purely on “How To Be Both”, I hasten to add, I was a little bit unsure about beginning my Man Booker longlist reading with this book.  Coincidentally for the last couple of years the first book I’ve read off the list has ended up scooping the prize, (I’m sure the judges are not bearing this in mind!) so I wanted this to be good.

 And it is.  For me, it is considerably better than the award-laden “How To Be Both”.  The reason?  I got that emotional attachment towards the relationship between the two main characters very early on and this relationship is a thread which runs throughout the novel.

 It’s not going to be easy summing this up in a few words.  A young girl befriends an elderly male neighbour who educates and stimulates moulding her into the adult she becomes.  Now a woman, Elisabeth visits him in his care home where he resides as a semi-comatose centenarian.  From the stories he has told her about the Art world she realises he knew Pauline Boty, a 1960’s female pop artist who Elisabeth bases her dissertation upon.  The time of these care home visits coincides with the Brexit vote and the uncertainty and tensions which fills the country comes across superbly.  Meanwhile Elisabeth’s mother has her own life changes ahead of her when she takes part in a TV antiques programme.

 The writing is often sumptuous, occasionally powerfully poetic as in a section about the mood of the country in the days following the vote and incredibly realistic as the characters grapple with the frustrations of modern life.  A section early on in the novel where Elisabeth attempts to use the Post Office Check and Send Service for a passport is a joy to read and is the section which really pulled me into the narrative, where I remained for most of the novel.  It is also highly visual, not least by its encompassing of art and story into the narrative.

 Smith is both a poet and a storyteller and her sheer unpredictability is both impressive and challenging.  The reader needs to yield to her skills as there is no way to ascertain how the novel will pan out.  There are digressions, plot twists, memories and dreams which make it a narcotic experience in more ways than one.  On this occasion I found her writing addictive and read it quite quickly, it will repay re-reading.  There’s the whole “Autumn” theme which I haven’t touched on which is part of the novel’s life-blood.  If this is the standard of the longlist it is going to be a good few weeks for me and a tough choice for the judges.  This is so close to being a five star read (How To Be Both I rated three stars) and is certainly shortlist worthy.

fourstars Autumn was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review


“We were not unalike, my father and I; we wanted to keep a record.  We imagined that there were truths waiting for us- about ourselves and those we loved, about the times we lived in- within our reach, if only we had the eyes to see them.”

 This is a novel about China, about families, stories and music.  Canadian writer Thien starts her sweeping saga in Toronto, with Li-Ling, in first-person narration, a young woman of Chinese parentage.  Following the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 a student refugee Ai-Ming finds her way to Li-Ling’s mother’s house.  The two girls’ fathers are connected in a story which encompasses China during the days of Chairman Mao and afterwards.  I knew little of Chinese history but Thien puts this right.  The very best writing is saved for the horrific times- the “Cultural Revolution” and Tiananmen Square where the involvement of the characters we have come to care about makes painful reading.

Ling’s father Jiang Kai befriended Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, when they were together at the Shanghai Conservatory Of Music.  Sparrow’s cousin, Zhuli, a gifted violinist makes up this trio of very strong characters.  Li-Ling comes to know about these people and others through family stories and a sequence of hand-copied chapters of a novel, which, during the difficult times, becomes the ultimate thing to be protected.

“The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller.  When I told Big Mother this she laughed her head off.  “But that’s how the world is, isn’t it?”

 There were times when I thought this book was outstanding but also times when my interest wavered, probably most often with the more recent generation.  I think it might just be slightly too long and if pared down somewhat has the potential to be a modern classic.  Nevertheless, this is some achievement of a third novel and Thien’s passion for the subject and characters shine through.

This is my final book from the Man Booker shortlist and I think it is a good job that they do not have to choose a runner up.  As far as I am concerned there is one that edges itself onto the winner’s podium (“His Bloody Project”) but selecting a second place would give me far more trouble.  On reflection, however, I think given the epic sweep, scope and important subject matter of this one that my highly commended runner up award would go to Madeleine Thien.


Do Not Say We Have Nothing was published in   July  2016 by Granta.

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy (2016)- A Man Booker Shortlist Review



“My love for my mother is like an axe.  It cuts very deep.”

 Deborah Levy is the current bookies favourite for the Man Booker prize (wonder how many of them have actually read it?) She is the most established author on the list and was previously shortlisted in 2012 for “Swimming Home.”  “Hot Milk” is my first introduction to her work.

I can sense the sunshine in this book.  Sofia, a procrastinating Ph.D student currently working in a coffee shop travels with her mother, Rose, to Almeria in Southern Spain.  Rose is seeking private medical treatment for a condition which intermittently causes mobility problems.  The unorthodox Doctor Gomez and his daughter, a nurse, take control of Rose leaving time for Sofia  to ponder on her life and dabble with holiday romances.  There are days on the beach, somewhat treacherous waters and the hot, arid atmosphere comes through clearly.  In fact, there’s something of the feverishness of sunstroke (or jelly fish stings) throughout the whole book.  Gomez’ approach to Rose, his desert-set clinic have an unrealness about them and both Sofia and her mother exist in a blur of confusion.

It is also a novel about shields.  Sofia uses her mother as a shield to stop her getting on with her  life and Rosa uses her disability in much the same way.  Rosa is never going to be happy following the doctor’s advice, although Sofia, who is not the patient, does.  Midway through there is a trip to Greece for Sofia to reunite with the father she has not seen for years but I found myself missing the Almeria environment and characters during this time.

I was certainly drawn in by the quality of the author’s prose and found Sofia to be a fascinating character.  The title implies something comforting, even soporific.  I’m not totally clear as to the relevance of the title, unless it refers to breast milk used a symbol of the pull between mother and offspring.  I do think this would be a perfect book for reading group discussion and would not be too surprised to see it win the Man Booker.  With one book left to read, however, I’m still championing “His Bloody Project.”


Hot Milk was published by Hamish Hamilton in March 2016

Serious Sweet – A L Kennedy (Vintage 2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review




“Every time I see something good, or kind, or silly, or worth collecting, I remember it.  Every time the city gives me something sweet, I remember and write it down.”

I was mid-way through this, my 9th of the Booker longlist reads when the shortlist was announced.  This wasn’t on it but I kept ploughing on.  This does mean, however, I’m abandoning plans for now to read the other two that did not make the cut- “The North Water” by Ian McGuire and “Hystopia” by David Means in order to concentrate on the two I haven’t yet read on the shortlist.  (For more info about this see here).

I have a bit of a chequered reading history with A L Kennedy.  When “The Blue Book” came out in 2011 I decided that a love affair between two mediums would be right up my street and added it to wish lists and to be read lists.  To whet my appetite (as I decided to wait for the paperback) I read a short story collection from 1994 “Now That You’re Back” and it really did nothing for me.  Only one of the stories, the one that bore the collection’s title grabbed me in any way.  In fact, so put off was I by the experience that “The Blue Book” found itself being removed from the wish lists and to date remains unread.

Now I appreciate that “Serious Sweet” is Kennedy 22 years on and it was time for a reappraisal.  I read it with an open mind but I cannot say that I’m surprised that it did not make the shortlist.

This is the story of two characters somewhat adrift in modern London.  Meg is an ex-alcoholic who works in an animal shelter and Jon is a civil servant, working in Whitehall, who is disgruntled with just about everything.  The story opens with a scene which touches on a bit of a phobia of mine as Jon attempts to free a young bird trapped in some netting.  The detail and level of observation in this was too much for someone who regularly has nightmares about this kind of thing.  The author was not to know how disturbing I would find this opening but it nearly caused me to abandon the book (something I just don’t do).

Away from the bird incident Jon struggles to get to work, where all, we quickly sense, is not right.  The time ticks away in this book and yet Kennedy has the ability to regularly make time stand still through the detail in her writing.  There are regular little stand-alone vignettes of London life which are beautifully observed but become insubstantial.

We know that at some point Meg and Jon will meet, but not the circumstances.  Each seem rather bound up with internal monologues of anxiety and self-centeredness.  There will be times when you will be very frustrated with these characters and you may not care about those circumstances.  I read this on the Kindle and at about 80% through I discovered I was actually riveted by the potential of the plot and the way in which it had been set up.  This did not, however, fully sustain me for the rest of the book.

I did enjoy this significantly more than my previous experience of the author and “The Blue Book” is back on those lists again but I still feel there is something about A L Kennedy that is very much an acquired taste.  Is it because of too much internal ponderings by the characters and the jumping between first and third person narratives which ends up making “Serious Sweet” rather jarring?  On Amazon  some reviewers not prepared to mince their words have used “dull” and “ tedious” but there is something there- certainly enough to get it recognised by the Man Booker judges but for me, whatever it is, it’s not there consistently enough to make this an extra-special reading experience.


Serious Sweet was published by Vintage in May 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Work Like Any Other – Virginia Reeves (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review




I’m sure that debut novels must have a tougher battle to get onto the Man Booker longlist.  Without an established author reputation they would really have to shine to stand out from the pack.  And here is one shining example.  American author Reeves has set this haunting tale in 1920’s Alabama and has created many moments that will certainly stick in my mind.

Roscoe Martin is married to a farmer’s daughter and on her father’s death is expected to take over the running of the land.  This is not in his blood and he finds himself taking out his frustration on his wife and young son.  That is until he thinks of a way of combining his passion for electricity with saving the family business.  He decides to illegally bring power to the farm by tapping into existing power sources.  He drafts in sceptical African-American help Wilson and the two change the fortunes of the farm.  Temporarily.  Tragedy and incarceration ensue and the tale is told in two narratives- a third person relating the events and a first person from Roscoe in prison.   Sometimes a story will just draw you in by having that something extra special.  I’m not sure if it is the unpredictability of Reeves’ plot, the vivid characterisation or readers’ sympathies being all over the place but this was one book I did not want to end.

There’s the harshness of rural life in Alabama and the prison existence  but throughout there is hope.  Hope that Martin will get through his sentence by balancing the grimmer work with stints in the diary and library, hope that his family will stay together and that he will eventually have something to go home for.  Throughout the darkest moments Reeves brings that hope into play, for example  an act of human kindness or a character’s relationship with a dog, and that provides a balance which makes this really work.  For me the two strongest I’ve read so far on the Man Booker longlist have been debut novels set in the past (see also review of His Bloody Project).  These are major new talents who deserve much recognition and a wide reading audience.

Update:  I am very surprised not to see this on the shortlist which was announced this week.  It’s a very good book …………



Work Like Any Other was published in  April 2016 by Scribner.

The Man Booker Shortlist


Yesterday the shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2016 was announced.  My aim was to get reading the longlist so that when the shortlist was announced I would not be overladen with unread books.  I am currently reading my 9th book on the longlist of 13 (“Serious Sweet” by A.L Kennedy- which did not make the shortlist- I’ll let you know my opinion soon) and have actually now already read 4 of the 6 on the shortlist.

So huge congratulations to the final six, one of which will be scooping the £50,000 top prize and will be a guaranteed best-seller.  The six who made the cut are

sellout The Sellout – Paul Beatty – The rather wonderful Oneworld Publications are aiming to make it two years in a row with this.  I concluded  “It deserves a place on the Booker shortlist but the jury might opt for something very different from last year so would be an outside chance to scoop the prize.”  Read my review of this  book here

hotmilkHot Milk – Deborah Levy -Published by Hamish Hamilton and the Bookies Favourite to win the prize.  I still haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy yet but I’ve scheduled it into the reading list.  I’ll let you know what I think.

bloodyproject His Bloody Project – Graeme McRae Burnet-Published by Contraband, a very small Scottish Publishing house I am absolutely delighted to see this on the shortlist.  I said  “This is a book which will be strongly competing for my Book Of The Year and will hopefully win over the Man Booker judges much in the same way as it has won me over. “.  Read my review of this book here

eileenEileen- Otessa Moshfegh- Published by Vintage.  I said  “It is undoubtedly well-written and Moshfegh keeps us guessing throughout…………I would be very happy to see this on the shortlist.”.  Read my review of this book here

szalay All That Man Is – David Szalay – The second book on the shortlist for Vintage.  I really enjoyed this but had some reservations about the structure of the book, saying; But is it a novel?  This obviously did not worry the judges too much.  Read my review of this book here

madelinethienDo Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien – Published by Granta and the second of the two not to make it yet onto my reading pile.  I’ll let you know what I think, hopefully, before the announcement of the result on 25th October.

Obviously, I still have two to read but at the moment the book I will be championing is “His Bloody Project”.  The book I am most disappointed by it not reaching the shortlist was “Work Like Any Other” by Virginia Reeves (Scribner 2016).  I have read this but not yet posted my review so look out for it soon.  It’s a good one.

All That Man Is – David Szalay (Vintage 2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review



When is a novel a novel?  The Man Booker Prize is traditionally awarded for the best original novel written in English and published in the UK.  Yet reading British author David Szalay’s “All That Man Is” I couldn’t help but think that what I was reading was a selection of short stories linked by a common theme and that might just hamper its chances to go all the way.

This, his fourth novel. is in nine parts, each being a self-contained tale of a man at a different stage of his life, beginning with 17 year old Simon backpacking  in Germany  and ending with his 73 year old grandfather, Tony, (the most explicit link between any of the stories) in Italy and contemplating his demise.

In each of the stories the main character is away from home, in a place where he feels, to some extent, an outsider, be it on holiday, work-related or an escape.  Each one of Szalay’s nine men views their life with something bordering on disappointment, whatever they are searching for in their travels doesn’t really materialise in the way that they hoped.  Murray, in his mid 50’s, relocated to Croatia, really has little to do and few friends to do it with, the much younger Bernard, a French man, expects to discover real life on a package holiday to Cyprus.  Perhaps the least disappointed is journalist Kristian, a Dane on the scent of a grubby news story and the most disappointed Aleksandr, a wealthy Russian oligarch contemplating suicide on his yacht.

If this all sounds downbeat, it is not.  In fact, the second section, Bernard’s holiday was one of the most laugh-out loud funny tales I’ve read in a long time.  I think Szalay hits the nail on the head with many aspects of the male experience.  His younger characters are motivated by sex (or lack of it) the middle aged by their careers and the elderly by impending doom.  The final tale of a Knight of the Realm, whose important government job is behind him attempting to function alone in his holiday home in Italy is beautifully written and feels very poignant.

The nine stories all feel authentic and whereas I warmed to some more than others overall it is an impressive read.  But is it a novel?  And do I even need to worry about that too much?  This would certainly be a discussion the Man Booker judges would be likely to be having.  If it proves to be an important factor then it may very well be missing from the shortlist.  If not….then it will deserve its place.

Update – Sept 13th – Congratulations to David Szalay for making the shortlist.


All That Man Is was published by Vintage in 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

The Schooldays Of Jesus- J M Coetzee (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review



J M Coetzee, on paper, must be a strong favourite to take the 2016 Man Booker prize.  This South African writer, now an Australian citizen, became, in 1999, the first author to win the award twice with “Disgrace” (16 years after “The Life And Times Of Michael K”).  He has made the shortlist once since then and this is his third appearance on the longlist.  If successful, he would be the first author to win three times.  A Nobel Prize winner,  he is one of the most celebrated writers of our era and, confession time, I hadn’t read any of his work before.

This, his 13th full-length novel follows on from 2013’s “The Childhood Of Jesus.”  I agonised whether to read this first but decided as the prize is for a stand-alone novel then this is how this should be judged.  I did spend a couple of minutes scanning Amazon to discover it features the same three central characters and that (surprise surprise) reviewers were not always full of praise.   I wasn’t sure what to expect with this- some kind of allegory or fable?  I must admit I didn’t feel particularly inspired by the title but Coetzee’s skill is that the reader can read in as much or as little as they want and still manage to get much from the work.

In a Spanish-speaking country in some kind of alternate reality which possesses both a timelessness and modernity, a boy, David, (not his real name) arrives with a woman who may or may not be his mother, Ines, and Simon,  a guardian.  The three are on the run from authorities and instantly the inferences behind the title suggest themselves.  They spend the summer fruit-picking and befriend the owners who agree to contribute to David’s education.  He is an extremely inquisitive boy and is enrolled at an Academy Of Dance which follows some obscure philosophy regarding numbers.  David, at 6 years old, tries the patience of those around him apart from his Dance teacher whose words he adheres to over and above his family.  His veneration of the Dance is shattered when things take a macabre turn at the Academy.

Characterisation is strong.  David is as self-centred as any 6 year old has a right to be and the relationship with Simon, the stepfather who is determined to do right by him, is one of the strengths of the novel.  The concept of education as a  moving away from the family unit is effectively conveyed as Ines and Simon begin to feel pushed out of David’s life.  How can we be sure  that we are doing the right thing by our children and when is it necessary to intervene?  Coetzee is an intellectual writer, undeniably smarter than much of his readership.  If we don’t understand all the levels of meaning and where all this is going is it to the detriment of the book?  Generally speaking, I would say yes but I thoroughly enjoyed this and that may be the reason this author gets selected for awards.  The combination of readability and intellectualism is bound to make us feel good about ourselves as readers.  This should certainly make the shortlist.


The Schooldays of Jesus is published by Harvill Secker in August 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance copy.

His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet (2016)- A Man Booker Shortlist Review



“To put to death an individual with the sensibility and intelligence to produce an extended literary work, would I strongly aver, be a cruel and uncivilised act.”

As far as I am concerned one of the best things about Book Awards is when they introduce me to something that I would never have otherwise discovered.  This is how I feel about “His Bloody Project”.  Emanating from Scottish independent publishers, Saraband,  this is Burnet’ s second novel.  Subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae”, Burnet takes us to the crofting community of the Scottish highlands in 1869 where 17 year old Macrae commits three murders.  Macrae kept a prison journal and this forms the basis of these documents together with transcripts from the trial, witness statements and reports from contemporary experts in criminal psychology.  If this reads like true crime masquerading as fiction then it is testament as to how spot on Burnet’s recreation of Macrae and his environment is.

This is impressive, superbly researched historical fiction with the author bringing in a couple of real life characters in the form of Macrae’s solicitor and the psychologist employed to assess the killer’s sanity.  Were Macrae’s actions a result of insanity or was he pushed to act because of a campaign of harassment against his family?  Macrae, deemed to be very bright by those who taught him but unable to escape his circumstances is not a totally reliable narrator.  There are a couple of very relevant points he omits from his journal which we discover during  the trial.

Compared to true crime accounts such as Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy” the fictional approach obviously allows for added depth in the documentation which makes this a very rich and rewarding read.  This is a book which will be strongly competing for my Book Of The Year and will hopefully win over the Man Booker judges much in the same way as it has won me over.  There is a potential large audience for this book as it will satisfy historical and crime writing fans and there’s also lots for reading groups to discuss.

Update – Sept 13th –  Huge Congratulations to Graeme McRae Burnet  for making the shortlist.


His Bloody Project was published by Contraband, an imprint of Saraband in November 2015.