Man Booker 2017- Is it possible to pick the winner?

The winner of the Man Booker prize 2017 is announced in just a few hours.  The Duchess of Cornwall is due make the presentation this evening.  I have managed to get through the six titles on the shortlist and thought I’d give a kind of end of term report and make my prediction for the prize.  I’ll list them in the order the bookies are favouring them:

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Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders – The bookies hot favourite was just a little too odd for me both in structure and content.   Latest sale figures suggest it has sold around 10,000 copies  ***

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Exit West– Mohsin Hamid – Also notching sales of around 10,000 this is a sparse novel which impressed but I felt it fizzled out towards the end.  ****

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Elmet – Fiona Mozley – A debut which was apparently partly written on the author’s phone which sounds terribly modern but this is a traditional, poetic literary novel which packs a good punch.  Another one with sales figures around 10,000 ****

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4321– Paul Auster – It’s just too long and with too much detail.  It’s ambitious, clever and probably has the most memorable moments but it is an exhausting read. Now published in paperback which at least makes it lighter, around 15,000 people have bought this so far.****

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Autumn – Ali Smith.  With around 50,000 copies this is definitely the commercial hit of the bunch but the bookies place it at 8-1.  I think it’s a strong contender and is the most enjoyable of Smith’s books I have read.  ****

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The History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund – The Bookies outsider and my outsider as well.  It just didn’t sparkle like I hoped it would.  (So probably the winner then).  Not really tempting the book-buying public with sales so far of around the 3.5 thousand mark. ***

Phil’s Tip For The Prize– I’m going for Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

POST ANNOUNCEMENT UPDATE– And the winner is……………….George Saunders for Lincoln In The Bardo proving once again I just cannot second-guess the Man Booker judging panel.  In her summing up Baroness Lola Young, the Chair of the Panels “This really stood out because of its innovation- its very different styling and the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these not quite-dead souls in this other world.”  I said in my review, with equal gravitas; “what I couldn’t get out of my head was a manic, adult version of “Rentaghost”.” So each to their own, I suppose and congratulations are certainly due to George Saunders for beating off the competition with this great award for his first full-length novel.  Now it has won the prize many more will be seeking out the book.  It certainly hasn’t been the biggest seller of the list to date and a copy prominently on display in one of the libraries where I have been working has been sat ever since it came in without anyone taking it home.  All that will change now………Roll on, Man Booker 2018 where I will no doubt once again be barking up the wrong literary tree.

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The Man Booker Prize 2017 – From Longlist to Shortlist

manbookerYesterday saw the announcement of the six titles deemed worthy to be on the 2017 Man Booker shortlist.  I’d been attempting to read as many as possible on the longlist in the hope that I would pretty much have the shortlist covered and read before the announcement of the winner on 17th October  just over a month’s time.  I read six of the titles on the longlist.  The reviews can be found be following the links:

Swing Time – Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016)    ****

Autumn – Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016)   ****

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017) *****

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber 2017) ****

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) *****

History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2017) ***

With two excellent five star reads discovered I was confident that I had maybe even read the eventual winner.  But good old Booker, unpredictable as ever.  The Whitehead and Shamsie books have failed to make the shortlist.  Of the six I have read only two have made the cut and one of those is the only one I rated as three star.  In case you missed out here is the shortlist.

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Autumn- Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016) –  I described this as “it will repay re-reading” and “it is certainly shortlist-worthy)

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History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2017) – I said “it never fully realised the potential I thought it had in the first few chapters.”

4321

4321- Paul Auster (Faber & Faber 2017) – Yes, thanks for this Man Booker judges.  I got this from the library where I found it taking up a good chunk of shelf space.  It’s 866 pages of large hardback which probably explains why it hadn’t been borrowed much.  I’ve been saving it until the shortlist announcement, secretly hoping that it might not make it and then I would return it unread.  Now I’m going to have to go for it.  Hope it’s worth it.  It’s presence on the shortlist means that readers will now start requesting it so I better crack on with it asap.  Paul Auster is the only one of the four authors who I have read books by before.

elmet

Elmet – Fiona Mozley (JM Originals 2017) – A debut novel from a British author.  I originally thought it odd that someone would write about those large cans of hairspray you see in hairdressers, but apparently that’s Elnet.  I bought this yesterday from Waterstones and I will be reading it if there is anytime left after I’ve finished 4321.

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Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders (Bloomsbury Publishing 2017)- American author.  This is currently not yet available as a paperback.  I bought a Kindle copy as it is much cheaper.  (£4.99 on Amazon yesterday).  According to Ladbrokes this seems to be the early favourite.

exitwest

Exit West – Moshin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton 2017) – I saw this at Waterstones (they actually had signed copies in the branch I was in) but thought I’d hold out on this for a bit until I’ve cleared the backlog of reading, which probably means that this will be the winner!

Many congratulations to the six authors that have made the shortlist.  I hope the four I haven’t read are outstanding as they have taken the places of sure-fire contenders Colson Whitehead and Kamila Shamsie.  It’s very unusual for me to back the actual winner but I’m certainly going to get reading in order to voice my opinion.

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

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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

Baileys Women’s Prize Winner – How To Be Both – Ali Smith (2014)

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Yesterday we had the announcement of the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Huge congratulations to Ali Smith for her “How To Be Both”. Ali was presented with the £30,000 prize at the ceremony at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It was perhaps not that big a surprise (although it was for Ali) as the book has already won the Costa Novel Award, the Goldsmith Prize and was on the shortlist for the Folio and Man Booker.

When I blogged about the longlist back in March I said I was hopeful that I would get round to reading a number of the books – unfortunately, I have only managed to read one (why haven’t I got round to reading “The Paying Guests” yet? I love Sarah Waters!) but that one was none other than ……… “How To Be Both”. I have been sitting on my review because, confession time, it didn’t blow me away like I was expecting it to. I’m feeling a bit like the bad fairy at the christening, but being swept along by the excitement of the announcement I thought I’d blog my review today.

Firstly, I’m not saying it didn’t deserve to win (especially as I haven’t read the others) nor that I didn’t enjoy because I did and I found it very thought-provoking about what we expect from the books we read.   “How To Be Both” has a clever narrative structure. The book is printed in two different formats. There are two narrative strands one set in the fifteenth century and one modern day. Half of the books published start with the modern section, half with the fifteenth century. The copies of the books look the same so it is random which format you will get. My copy began with the fifteenth century and moved into the modern day section. I’m not sure how much my enjoyment of the book was dictated by this. I suppose to find out I would have to seek out the other version to see if it makes a difference to the reading experience, but I suspect it wouldn’t.

My problem with it (and this is the first Ali Smith I have read so I am not familiar with her style) is that it felt too much like a technical exercise and that held me back from really getting into the book. This distance started right from the cover, which made me feel a little uneasy. I had heard about the book, but not seen it, yet walked by it a number of times, not recognising that this “Georgy Girl” type cover was on the book everyone was raving about. I confess to almost finding it a little embarrassing purchasing it, but once reading it I discovered that the cover photo is significant. On the front cover is a picture of 60’s French pop chanteuses Sylvie Vartan and Francoise Hardy, on the back a detail from a fresco by Renaissance artist Francesco Del Cossa. It feels like someone has asked Smith to write a book around these two disparate photos in a kind of creative writing exercise and attempt to tie these pictures into one plot and this she has done admirably, but for me the mechanics of the book were made a little too clear.

Del Cossa, in for me, the first section of the book is reimagined by the author as a woman passing as a man embarking work on the fresco. Towards the middle we get glimpses of Del Cossa in purgatory observing a modern teenage girl who becomes the focus of the second section (or vice versa). George is mourning the death of her mother who had taken her to Italy especially to see the fresco paintings which she had fallen in love with. A new friend gives George the photo of the French singers because one of them resembles George and the friend has romantic designs. The girls themselves begin to explore the life of the painter, initially for a school project but then because George’s mother had loved them.

This is a tale of Art and Creation; the influence of art upon our lives and of female longing. At times I did find it a challenging read and at other times I couldn’t help but detect what I sensed to be style over substance and it was that which stopped me having a consistent emotional attachment to this book.   For me, that emotional response is the most important thing as a reader and when it’s not there I get a bit disappointed. And I know it’s a personal thing, which is what makes reading so wonderful. On this occasion I didn’t get it from this book –that is not to say I wouldn’t get it on a re-read at some other point in my life or from one of Ali’s other novels. If I’d discussed this with a reading group I probably would have got a lot more out of it but it was just me reading with a cat on my lap. Ali Smith is in illustrious company. After reading this I had my first ever experience of Virginia Woolf in “To The Lighthouse” (1927) and I felt exactly the same (actually a lot more so). I was beginning to think something had happened to me as a reader and that I’d never get that total immersion back………………….. (Reading this back I can appreciate why the Baileys Prize insists on an all-female judging panel!) threestars

How To Be Both is published by Hamish Hamilton in the UK