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.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh (Vintage 2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review



“Violence made much more sense to me than any strained conversation.  If there had been more fighting in my family growing up in X-Ville, things might have turned out differently.  I might have stayed.”

“Eileen”, American author Moshfegh’s  second novel is a first person narrative,  largely an escape plan by the title character, living in a place she calls X-Ville with her alcoholic ex-cop father.  Eileen is somewhat strange, with bizarre habits, rituals and hang-ups.  She is an isolated figure, working in a boys’ prison as an administrator devising pointless questionnaires for the visiting mothers just to pass the time.  As the story moves towards Christmas 1964 Eileen begins to plan her getaway from this existence (a plan we know succeeds as the narrator is Eileen looking back to this time).  Her fantasies of killing her father and of being seduced by one of the prison guards all take more of a back seat when Rebecca, appointed to devise a curriculum at the prison arrives.

It is undoubtedly well-written and Moshfegh keeps us guessing throughout.  There were undertones of misery-lit at times (not my favourite genre) but Rebecca’s appearance adds a new dynamic to the proceedings and it is one sentence from her which changes the whole proceedings for the final section of the book, taking it into a direction I did not anticipate.

The character of Eileen is fascinating and Moshfegh’s creation is the reason this has made the longlist. Naive, unpredictable and able to elicit responses from sympathy to revulsion from the reader but throughout you will her to get her life back on track and escape both the prison she works in and the one she has created for herself.  I would be very happy to see this on the shortlist.

Update – Sept 13th – Congratulations to Ottessa Moshfegh  for making the shortlist.


Eileen was published by Vintage in March 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for a 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.

The Many – Wyl Menmuir (Salt 2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review



British author Wyl Menmuir has made the Booker longlist with his debut.  This short novel shows a very confident handling of mood and style.  In  a small fishing village strange things are occurring- the fish look sick and deformed due to some form of chemical pollution and an outsider has come to live in the long abandoned house of a villager lost at sea.

This is a very edgy novel which borders upon horror but is perhaps more of a study of loss and loneliness.  It is told using the viewpoint of two characters, Ethan, who has lost a friend and Timothy who comes with many questions into the village and moves into the dead man’s house.  He wants to find out more about the environment he is inhabiting but this information is not easy to come by.

I can appreciate the writing talent but I felt it was all a little at one level.  There wasn’t enough light with the shade for me and this haunting tale did not quite fully draw me in.  The mysteries within the novel are purposely left unresolved as I knew all along they would be.  I think congratulations are due to author and his publishers Salt for the longlist inclusion but I think this might be as far as Menmuir goes on this occasion.


The Many was published by Salt Publishing  in  June 2016

My Name Is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout – A Man Booker Longlist Review



“…..I think of something Sarah Payne had said at the writing class in Arizona.  “You will only have one story”, she had said.  “You’ll write your one story many ways.  Don’t ever worry about story.  You have only one.”

This is the  fifth novel by American author, Elizabeth Strout.  She is most famous for “Olive Kitteridge” (2008), which I have not read but which recently gained a new lease of life following the multi-Emmy prize winning adaptation by HBO starring Frances McDormand.  It is a sparse tale, a well-written series of observations from the main character, a twice married author from a poverty-stricken background looking back on her life.

Lucy’s one story focuses on a nine week stay in a New York hospital in the mid 80’s as a result of complications after an appendectomy.  Her mother, who she has not seen for many years, comes to sit beside her bed.  The two, struggling through their difficult relationship swap incidents and memories of their past.  With the reality of their own past being too much to deal with the talk is often of people they knew distantly.  Lucy reflects on her childhood, her life at the time of her hospitalisation and on the years following this.  Much is understated and anyone wanting a full revelation of Lucy’s background will need to piece it together from the events described.  The tale moves quickly through short sections.  The only characters we really get to know is Lucy and her unpredictable, enigmatic and extremely bottled-up mother.  The city of New York has a part to play, the hospital is in the shadow of the Chrysler Building and the city swallows up the people who vanish from Lucy’s life.

It is a very quiet novel with the hushed calmness of the hospital dominating in its superficial way.  Like Lucy’s hospital room the calmness belies how much is going on under the surface.  It is a quick read and moments will no doubt linger but I wonder if it just a little too subdued to wow the Man Booker judges.  I would be pleased to see it on the shortlist but would be very surprised should it win.

Its length and the potential for open-ended discussion would make it a productive reading group choice.


My Name Is Lucy Barton was published by Viking in 2016

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Oneworld Publications 2016) – Man Booker Shortlist Review



“And if you think about it, pretty much everything that made the twentieth century bearable was invented in a California garage: the Apple computer, the Boogie Board and gangster rap.”

Oneworld Publications are aiming to take the Man Booker Prize two years in a row after triumphing last year with Marlon James.  There can be said to be a number of similarities between that book and this – the African-American male author, the many cultural references that the British reader might struggle with, the mix of fact and fiction and both novels’ sheer edginess replete with words and images which may make the average reader feel uncomfortable. I’m not a huge fan of satire.  I feel for it to work well  you really need to know about the area being satirised (that’s why Margaret’s Thatcher’s favourite TV show was famously “Yes Prime Minister”).  Now I obviously do not have much awareness of Black American life in Los Angeles so this might not have been a good match. I say this but last year Paul Murray’s  satire on the Irish economy “The Mark & The Void” was my favourite new read so perhaps satire is something you get more into with age and experience as I really enjoyed this book too.

“The Sellout” is the main character (I’m not too sure why he’s considered a sellout) whose father talks down  suicidal African-Americans until he is shot by the Police.  This prompts the son to begin a process of reversing civil rights achievements beginning by redefining the boundaries of his neighbourhood that had become so notorious it was wiped off the map then introducing priority seating for whites on the buses and re-establishing segregated schools all as a way of improving lives.  When he unwittingly finds himself a slave-owner he falls foul of the law.  The satire is biting, there is little of the African-American existence which Beatty doesn’t have his characters comment upon and there are attacks on much of modern-day America.  I struggled through the Prologue but once I got my footing within the book and knew what was going on I really did begin to enjoy it.

An ex-child actor (from the real-life “Little Rascals” series) Hominy attaches himself to “The Sellout” when he takes on his father’s role and stops a suicide attempt.  Hominy is a great character seeking out the now-censored most racist of his film shorts because they contained his best acting.  The importance of The Little Rascals may not be appreciated by British readers as their history is complex.  These films were the first to portray black and white child actors as equals yet have been criticised for the stereotyping used in order to get laughs.

I think that like the Bob Marley assassination attempt themed “Brief History of Seven Killings” this may not appeal to the general reader and reading the “n” word so  frequently is difficult whatever the context but there is much to enjoy in this profane battering-ram of a novel.

The Sellout won the National Book Critic Circle Award for Fiction and has been shortlisted for the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.  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.

Shortlist worthy? – Yes

Update – Sept 13th – Congratulations to Paul Beatty and Oneworld  for making the shortlist.

Update- October – He’s done it! Paul Beatty has won the Man Booker Prize 2016 with Oneworld making it two years in a row.  This was the first book of the longlist I read and although it did stick in my mind I did not think it was going to be the first past the post.  Congratulations!


The Sellout was published by Oneworld in 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy