Blogging the Booker Part 6: Richard Flanagan

That’s it. I made it. With only a few hours until the winner is announced, I just put down Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-richard-flanaganNorth and with it I completed the 2014 Booker Prize Shortlist. And I may just have found a new contender. Okay, it’s not as instantly enjoyable and accessible as Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, but it does seem more likely to curry favour with the judges.

Flanagan’s novel is exactly what Mukherjee’s wanted to be. It’s a weighty work of literature that focuses on an important period of history while also trying to shed light on how historical events affect the families, friends, and lives of those involved. In The Lives of Others we had the Naxalbari uprisings. Here, we have POWs building the Burma Death Railway.

One major difference between the works is this; Flanagan manages to represent the true savagery and horror of events at the same time as giving us a tender and devastating story of one man’s life and lost loves. Mukherjee mixes his many stories awkwardly, and subsequently dilutes the meaning of all of them.

But even without a similar shortlistee with which to compare it, Flanagan’s novel would be a fantastic and worthy winner. We watch protagonist Dorrigo Evans grow up, go to war, save lives, fall in and out of love, and survive the brutalities of a POW camp. But even when writing of such horror, Flanagan’s way with words make this a beautiful and poetic novel. There’s a quote from Evie Wyld on the back of the book which sums up everything I want to say:

Not just a great novel but an important book in its ability to look at terrible things and create something beautiful. Everyone should read it.

Well said, Evie.

Can it win? You may have read my gushing reaction to Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. My view hasn’t changed. But listening to the opinions of others and the bookies, it seems Fowler is unlikely to take down the prize. Flanagan has a better chance. And there could be no doubting the quality of the winner if he were to do so.

Blogging the Booker Part 5: Joshua Ferris

When I first saw the shortlist, Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was the novel that least appealed. That’s not to sayTo Rise Again At A Decent Hour cover - Copy that I saw anything inherently wrong with the book or its premise but, compared to the rest of the list, there was little that piqued my interest. This could be partly due to the fact that I’m not a big fan of dentists, and protagonist Paul O’Rourke is a leading light of the profession. It could also be down to my slight phobia of comic novels. Yes, I prefer novels that border on the miserable – but I also find that many comic novels make me laugh less often than an episode of The Big Bang Theory. (Which isn’t much, in case you missed that.)

But Ferris’s novel is a pleasant surprise. Focusing on O’Rourke and his dental practice as they both come under attack from a internet menace, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour manages to make some insightful comments about today’s society while also having a bloody good laugh about it.

O’Rourke is not a fan of the internet and social media, but when this unknown menace creates a website for his dental practice and begins posting as him on Facebook, Twitter, and in baseball forums, he is forced to confront a world he has long ignored. Soon, his new namesake is posting questionable diatribes in his name and forwarding the agenda of a lost people known only as the Ulms.

Admittedly, the novel does get a little lost as it moves further and further into the world of the Ulms. Ferris is making a point about the way anything can be made to seem real in the age of the internet, but this work is at its best when focusing on the lonely life of the protagonist rather than the power of the world wide web. When at its best, though, it is hilarious. Not many books have made me laugh out loud as much as this one – but that could be largely because I’m a miserable git.

Can it win? Despite enjoying the book much more than I expected to, it would be the most surprising winner. A better book than both and The Lives of Others, it doesn’t have their loftiness. That could count against it in the judges’ eyes. And as enjoyable as it is, it can’t quite live with How to be Both and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it comes to writing and storytelling. With one book left to finish, there’s still a clear winner in my eyes.



Blogging the Booker Part 4: Neel Mukherjee

nmtlooLet me start by saying that I can see exactly why The Lives of Others made this year’s shortlist. It deals with heavy historical material in the shape of Calcutta’s Naxalbari risings in the late 1960s, a theme that also featured on the shortlist last year in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It also offers an involved investigation of the Indian family system, something that Booker judges have turned to again and again since Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things in 1997.

So no, it isn’t at all surprising to see that Mukherjee’s second novel made the shortlist. But it is surprising to see that it’s currently the favourite to win.

Because, despite being based on one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history, it doesn’t tell much of a story. Attempting to give almost equal weight to seventeen members of the Ghosh family, we actually don’t find out as much as we’d like about any of them. Except maybe Supratik. But, as the family member who joins the Naxalites, his story just doesn’t grab in the way that it should.

Much more interesting are the tales of Somnath, a rebellious and violent teenager, and Priyo and Chhaya, a brother and sister pairing that share a strange encounter in a bathroom that will haunt both of their lives. When these characters are involved, the novel comes to life. But they are involved too rarely to drag The Lives of Others from the doldrums.

Can it win? If you believe the bookies, then yes. It would be a shame, though. It would be a victory based on the novel’s weighty subject and not the way it’s written or the actual story it tells. It’s by no means an awful novel, but it brings nothing new to its genre and leaves too many of its interesting strands unfinished.

You can read more in my Bookmunch review.

Blogging the Booker Part 3: Karen Joy Fowler

Let me just warn you all, I’m about to gush.

If you are uncomfortable with humans expressing romantic feelings for a book then you might not want to read any further.

Karen-Joy-Fowler-We-Are-All-Completely-Beside-Ourselves-hbBut anyway, I’m going to try and tell you just how much I adored this book without spoiling it for you. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will take hold of your life and refuse to give it back for as long as you’re reading. I finished it in less than two days and got pretty close to falling out with somebody for trying to make me leave the flat while I was halfway through an important chapter.

This is a special book. But part of the reason it is so special is the surprises that lurk within its pages. In fact, on page 77 of the book, I was met with possibly the biggest surprise I’ve ever found in a novel. And it’s a good surprise. It turns a well written but conventional family drama into something astonishing, original, heartbreaking, funny, and unique. Some people may say there were clues to this surprise, but either I was too slow on the uptake, or Fowler pitched them absolutely perfectly. I’m going to go with the second option.

If you can help it, avoid spoilers. I just did a Google search for the image on the left and found out that spoilers are already everywhere. That’s a shame.

There’s a hell of a lot I could say about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. And I have said a bit more in my Bookmunch review. But most of all, I just want to say that it reminded me just why I love fiction so much. I connected with every character, believed every twist and turn, and had to wipe a few tears from my eyes during the closing forty pages. It’s a novel about family, about grief, about psychology, childhood, and memory. And it’s all these serious things while also being bloody hilarious.

Can it win? With apologies to my ideal aunty Ali Smith, I hope so. The Booker receives a lot of criticism from literary types for its sometimes safe choices, but if this was to win there could be no arguments. Up there with the very best.

Blogging the Booker Part 2: Howard Jacobson

by Howard Jacobson originally sounded like one of the most intriguing novels on the shortlist. As a big fan of post-apocalyptic the-road-cormac-mccarthy1fiction in general (think The Road, 28 Days Later, The Stand, Oryx and Crake, and Riddley Walker) I was excited to read a new member of the genre that had been deemed good enough for Booker recognition.

Jacobson’s post-apocalyptic landscape is disappointingly different to all of those listed above. Instead of ravaged lands and mutant animals, lost souls and livid zombies, we have a few people who live in a rather nice sounding village. Instead of people forced to eat babies or kill their friends to survive, we have characters who are no longer allowed to listen to Ray Charles and have to have fake versions of their favourite furniture. Or, in a really dramatic twist, they might try and disguise the real furniture as fake.

Shocking, isn’t it?

No. Not really.

jacobsonIn all honesty, this isn’t a vision of the future that will have you scrambling with fear. But the book does highlight some interesting issues. The current ‘crisis’ has been caused by the eradication of a race or religion of people, and much of their downfall was down to talk on social media. That seems believable. Jacobson obviously had some important issues in his mind when he started J, it’s just a shame he didn’t give them the respect they deserve.

You can read my full review on Bookmunch.

Should it win? No. No no no. Although it promises a lot, it delivers little. If you read my previous Booker post, you’ll know I wasn’t a big fan of last year’s winner The Luminaries. For that reason, I have a lingering fear that will take down the prize this year. Both novels delivered good ideas with poor execution. Both wittered on and left me bored. So both will probably win. I strongly hope not, though. Two novels in to the shortlist and Ali Smith’s How to be Both is ahead by quite a distance.

Blogging the Booker Part 1: Ali Smith

man-booker-prize-2014_0After somehow finding four of the shortlisted novels on my review pile, I decided to buy the other two and present you with my somewhat pointless opinions on the prize-giving proceedings.

Last year I read the entire shortlist, but only after the winner had been announced. There were some good novels on there, but only the Colm Toibin came close to actually being great. For me, eventual winner The Luminaries was one of the biggest wastes of time I remember enduring. And that includes the years where I played Championship Manager for roughly 6 hours a day.

This year’s shortlist looked a little more exciting. I was intrigued by the premise of Howard Jacobson’s J. I was happy to see that yet another novel based in India was in contention. And, most of all, one of my absolute favourite authors in existence was on the list.

Ali Smith. What is there to say about her. Having met her on several occassions, I can say that she’s not only an incredible, daring, witty, and original writer, but she is also one of the nicest and most encouraging people on the planet. I kind of wish she was my aunty. But she isn’t.

And for that reason, I’ll be completely honest about her shortlisted work How to be Both. It isn’t my favourite of her novels. It’s howtobebothan interesting and playful piece of literature, split into two separate stories that can be read in either order. But unfortunately, one of the stories (that of adolescent, grief-stricken George) is so much stronger than the other (which focuses on the life of Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure responsible for a series of striking paintings in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.)

You can read my full review on Bookmunch.

Should it win? Despite this not being Ali’s best work, it is still much better than most of last year’s contenders. It certainly does more in 300-something pages than The Luminaries did in its 3 and half million or so. I wouldn’t be upset, or surprised, to see Ali take down the prize. The book is unique and original, and that is what the Booker is supposed to be about. Some of her previous novels may have been more obvious winners, but there isn’t a writer today who deserves the recognition more.

The Gamal Pop-up Library (#gampoplib)

9781408843529A while ago I read and reviewed  a debut novel by Ciaran Collins.  That novel was called The Gamal. Five months after closing the book I still can’t get it out of my mind. I’m still unsure if I drew the right conclusion at the end, and I’m still astounded by the power, originality, and inventiveness that I met in those pages. But I still haven’t met anyone else who’s read it. You know the feeling everyone got when Breaking Bad was ending, when they just had to find somebody who’d seen the latest episode so they could try and figure it out between them? Well that’s how I’ve felt about The Gamal for five months. Other people need to read this book. For my sake and theirs.

Randomly, I recently struck up a conversation with Ciaran’s agent on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, he shares my belief that The Gamal deserves a wider audience. We batted around a few ideas and, once we’d decided that standing in city centres waving copies of the book above my head and shouting wouldn’t work, we came up with The Gamal’s Pop-up Library.

Intriguing, yes? But how would it work? Basically, there’s going to be three copies of Ciaran’s outstanding debut circulating around London (sorry Manchester friends, maybe in the future.) (I hate brackets, but do need to tell you that one copy is now circulating Manchester!) You can get hold of one of these books by simply finding me on Twitter (@Fran_Slater), following me, and sending me a Direct Message. The only condition is that once you’ve read the book, you need to provide a review. This can be on your blog, on Amazon, or on Goodreads. When you’ve finished, let me know, and Ciaran’s agent will get on his pushbike to collect the book from your very hands. Try not to keep it for too long – this will only work if we can circulate the books quickly.

The Gamal is a very experimental piece of literature. In the pages you’ll find pictures and song lyrics alongside the prose. In some instances, the protagonist Charlie has left space for you to fill in these lyrics yourself. This is something we encourage you to do. We want to use these three copies to not only spread the word about The Gamal, but to also let readers converse through the pages. So fill in the lyrics, write a message to the next reader on the inside cover, or stick a post-it note on your favourite parts.  Reading can sometimes be an isolating hobby, but stories were invented to bring people together. This experiment gives us the opportunity to do just that. And please, if you’re discussing The Gamal Pop-up Library on Twitter, use the hashtag #gampoplib.

I can’t explain how much I think you should all read this book. It’s been called a Catcher in the Rye for the modern age. For me, it’s better than that. You have an opportunity to read it for free – all you have to do is get in touch with me on Twitter.

(Now available in Manchester – follow up post coming soon.)

Peace at The Football Museum

peaceDavid Peace writes in a distinctive style. At his desk, in his room. David Peace writes fictional accounts of real life. At his desk, in his room. David Peace writes short sentences and lots of repetition. David does. At his desk, in his room. David Peace’s style will not be for everyone. David doesn’t care. David plans his novels meticulously and writes in the style he thinks best suits his stories. At his desk, in his room. David knows his style won’t be for everybody. David doesn’t care.

Luckily, though, on the evidence of the packed room at Manchester’s Football Museum last night, David’s style is for a lot of people. And it’s certainly for me. Ever since picking up Nineteen Seventy Four, a long time before The Damned United and the Granta Award made Peace a celebrity, I’ve been hooked on his novels. His staccato style and brutal subject matter lead to novels that hypnotise, shock, fascinate, and horrify. Peace spoke briefly about how he now looks back on Nineteen Seventy Four with some regret. It is the only piece of fiction he’s written which is entirely fictional. The crimes are not real. He feels that in creating these crimes he somehow glamourised or sensationalised violence, murder, and child abuse. I can see his point. But I have to say that the image of swan’s wings stitched into the body of a murderer’s victims is one that has stayed with me for longer than anything else I’ve read in literature. And at no point does Peace’s debut novel side with or condone the hideous violence it portrays.

But he has certainly developed as an author, and that was largely the subject up for discussion during the first half of last night’s talk. Interviewer Dave Haslam asked a lot about the early works, particularly The Red Riding Quartet and GB84. The focus was on how Peace’s unique style has evolved and the sensibilities that lie behind it. Peace talked eloquently and with a lot of humour about how he never meant to present West Yorkshire as an inherently negative place, but how growing up in the era of the Moors Murders and the Mining Strike meant that it was impossible for him to present an account of his home county that didn’t suggest things were pretty ‘grim up north.’

red or dead

As the event was at The Football Museum, talk was bound to shift focus as the night progressed. Peace proved as willing and able to discuss football as he has always been with Thatcher, Yorkshire, and the state of the novel today. His latest work, which I am two thirds of the way through, focuses on Liverpool legend Bill Shankly. Being a Nottingham Forest fan, and an ardent hater of all things Liverpool FC, I was a little concerned when I found out that one of my favourite authors was releasing a 715 page epic about a team whose match reports I skip over in the back pages of the paper. But Red or Dead is not just about Liverpool. It’s about a lost world, a generation before football and society became all about money, it’s about socialism, about passion, about society working together to achieve its goals.

It’s also Peace’s first positive novel. Last night he discussed how everything he has written before was a critique, a picture of what he thought was wrong with the world. Red or Dead is his take on something that was right. A mentality and a society that we could learn a lot from today. And you could really see the positivity in his performance on the stage. There was a joviality and wit that has been less obvious when I’ve seen him on stage before. Yes, we still got the odd rant about Thatcher, the odd jibe about the world we live in. It wouldn’t have been David Peace if we didn’t. But when he read from Red or Dead he did so with a smile on his face – and that’s something he’s never been able to do when reading about The Yorkshire Ripper or The Miners’ Strike. He proved that he is not only an insightful social commentator, an expert on matters ranging from history, to politics, to football, but he’s also a bloody funny and extremely humble man too.

The City Fox

foxThe City Fox is a new literary e-zine based in Yorkshire. It was founded, and is edited, by the very talented trio of Kathy Halliday, Vicki Bartram, and Evie Johnson and it is wonderfully illustrated by Nicola Spencer. The first issue is out now and it looks fantastic. You can check it out here:

As much as I am very impressed with this new publication, I’m not plugging it for the goodness of my health. My story This Man Alone has been chosen for the first issue, and has been illustrated with a suitably creepy drawing of some human ribs. That probably tells you a fair bit about the story’s theme.

Anyone who read The Long Goodbye, published in Nib Magazine earlier this year, will recognise that This Man Alone tells part of the same story, but from a different perspective. I’ve started to create a series based around that first story, which I hope will one day turn into a collection. So far I’ve sent two of them out and they’ve both been picked up, so it’s so far so good. I hope you enjoy This Man Alone, and that you’ll all support The City Fox.

On Completing a Draft

Eagle-can-flyLast night I typed the word ‘eagle’ and then followed it with a full stop. That was it. The end of three month’s work in which I created the fourth draft of my novel. I poured myself a whisky, I stared at the screen, and I felt the ends of my fingers start to itch.

What now?

The writing of this novel stretches back to over a year and a half ago, when I started with the simple idea of a boy who comes home to an empty house and finds a box full of money in the attic. Now, Fierce Animals is a work of two halves; a childhood in which Ryan Collins slowly faces up to the fact that his dad is a criminal, and an adulthood in which he returns to the UK for his father’s funeral, becoming re-emerged in the family history he’s fought so hard to escape. In my head, it’s an exploration of loss, a discussion of the trappings of family, and a look at the difficulty of forgiveness. On paper, it is probably none of those things. Not yet.

This is probably why the fingers felt a little itchy after I typed the word eagle. Since I started this edit on February 25th, I’ve waited for the moment when I could sit back in my chair and look upon another completed draft. Tens of thousands of words that have dribbled from my fingertips. I’ve discussed this moment with other writers. It’s been a kind of Holy Grail to me, something that’s kept me going in those moments when I’ve sat in to write instead of going out and spending time with real people; people outside the dysfunctional family I’ve created on my screen.

I expected a surge of relief or a feeling of accomplishment. But while those sensations are there, somewhere at the back of my brain, they aren’t my overarching emotions. Incompletion, maybe. Frustration that what I hope this novel will eventually say is not what it currently says. Annoyance at those oft-repeated phrases in the narrative, those glances that my characters tend to make on every page; their habits of touching people’s knees, holding their hands, kissing their foreheads. Their tendency to cry. Or, in the case of two characters I thought would be important, to disappear almost completely.

The main thing I know at the end of draft four is that there will probably be at the very least another four drafts before my novel is doing any of the things I really want it to. Ernest Hemingway probably said it best when he said ‘the first draft of everything is shit.’ The only thing wrong with that quote is that he didn’t extend it to say the same of the second, the third, and the fourth.

But I think that’s okay. Whether I actually ever become a published novelist or not, writing that word eagle, following it with a full stop, and sitting back in my chair with a whisky has bought me a step closer to it. I’m a little bit further along in my conversion from an amateur writer to a novelist. I just wrote a very long story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It would probably make you laugh a couple of times, too. It might make you cry. So I’ll print it off now and I’ll put it in my drawer for six weeks and try and forget about young Ryan and his troubles, and in six weeks I’ll start again. Draft five. And probably in around four or five months I’ll type a word like eagle, add a full stop, and drink a whisky. And again, I’ll feel a little frustration and a little incompleteness, but hopefully, I might let myself start to feel a little bit excited too.

Probably not, though. That’s not really my style.