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

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“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.”

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Hot Milk was published by Hamish Hamilton in March 2016

The Man Booker Shortlist

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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

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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.

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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

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“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.

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

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

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“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.

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

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

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“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!

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