My (Not the) Booker Prize Reading

A week from today, on the 14th (my birthday, as well as Susan’s – be sure to wish her a happy one!), this year’s Booker Prize will be announced. The Prize’s longlist didn’t contain much that piqued my interest this time around; I read one book from it and didn’t get on with it well at all, and I also DNFed another three.



Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

Winterson does her darndest to write like Ali Smith here (no speech marks, short chapters and sections, random pop culture references). Cross Smith’s Seasons quartet with the vague aims of the Hogarth Shakespeare project and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and you get this odd jumble of a novel that tries to combine the themes and composition of Frankenstein with the modern possibilities of transcending bodily limitations. Her contemporary narrator is Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor sponsored by the Wellcome Trust who supplies researcher Victor Stein with body parts for his experiments in Manchester. In Memphis for a tech expo, Ry meets Ron Lord, a tactless purveyor of sexbots.

Their interactions alternate with chapters narrated by Mary Shelley in the 1810s; I found this strand much more engaging and original, perhaps because I haven’t read that much about Shelley and her milieu, whereas it feels like I’ve read a lot about machine intelligence and transhumanism recently (To Be a Machine, Murmur, Machines Like Me). I think Winterson’s aim was to link the two time periods through notions of hybridness and resistance to death. It never really came together for me.



Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – I read the first 76 pages. The other week two grizzled Welsh guys came to deliver my new fridge. Their barely comprehensible banter reminded me of that between Maurice and Charlie, two ageing Irish gangsters. The long first chapter is terrific. At first these fellas seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. Maurice’s daughter Dilly is missing, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to find her. Threatening to decapitate someone’s dog is just the beginning – and you know they could do it. “I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet, Ben. But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here,” Charlie warns at one point. I loved the voices; if this was just a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling.

The Wall by John Lanchester – I lost interest in it and wasn’t drawn in by the first pages.

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – I read the first 35 pages. There’s a lot of repetition; random details seem deliberately placed as clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms (in 1988 a smartphone is just “A small, flat, rectangular object … lying in the road. … The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it”) there is not much plot or character to latch onto. I suspect there will be many readers who, like me, can’t be bothered to follow Saul Adler from London’s Abbey Road, where he’s hit by a car in the first paragraph, to East Berlin.


There’s only one title from the Booker shortlist that I’m interested in reading: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I’ll be reviewing it later this month as part of a blog tour celebrating the Aké Book Festival, but as a copy hasn’t yet arrived from either the publisher or the library I won’t have gotten far into it before the Prize announcement.


As for the other five on the shortlist…

  • I’m a conscientious objector to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I haven’t appreciated her previous dystopian sequels, and I’ve never really understood all the hype around The Handmaid’s Tale.
  • I don’t plan on reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages.*

Ducks, Newbury

  • I didn’t rate The Fishermen highly enough to give Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities a try.
  • I forced myself through Midnight’s Children some years back. What a pointless slog! Lukewarm reviews of his recent work mean I’m now doubly determined to avoid Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte.
  • Although the setup appeals to me (a prostitute’s whole life spooling out in front of her in the moments before her death) and I enjoyed her previous novel well enough, I’ve not heard enough good things to pick up Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.


*However, I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at our local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying art history at the Catafalque Institute in London (a thinly veiled Courtauld, where Ellmann studied). She’s immediately taken with one of her professors, Lionel Syms, whom she dubs “The Splendid Young Man.” Isabel’s desperately unsexy description of him had me snorting into my tea:

He had a masculinity.

His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique.

He held seminars and wore red socks.

To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students.

The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone.

I swooned in admiration of him.

Unfortunately, the Splendid Young Man is more interested in Isabel’s portly flatmate, Pol. There’s a screwball charm to this campus novel full of love triangles and preposterous minor characters. I laughed at many of Ellmann’s deadpan lines, and would recommend this to fans of David Lodge’s academic comedies. But if you wish to, you could read this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic fantasies. Ellmann even offers two alternate endings, one melodramatic and one more prosaic but believable. I’ll seek out the rest of her back catalogue – so thanks to the Booker for putting her on my radar.



In the meantime, I did a bit better with the “Not the Booker Prize” (administered by the Guardian) shortlist, reading three out of their six:


Flames by Robbie Arnott

This strange and somewhat entrancing debut novel is set in Arnott’s native Tasmania. The women of the McAllister family are known to return to life – even after a cremation, as happened briefly with Charlotte and Levi’s mother. Levi is determined to stop this from happening again, and decides to have a coffin built to ensure his 23-year-old sister can’t ever come back from the flames once she’s dead. The letters that pass between him and the ill-tempered woodworker he hires to do the job were my favorite part of the book. In other strands, we see Charlotte traveling down to work at a wombat farm in Melaleuca, a female investigator lighting out after her, and Karl forming a close relationship with a seal. This reminded me somewhat of The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett and Orkney by Amy Sackville. At times I had trouble following the POV and setting shifts involved in this work of magic realism, though Arnott’s writing is certainly striking.

A favorite passage:

“The Midlands droned on, denuded hill after denuded hill, until I rolled into sprawling suburbs around noon. Here’s a list of the places I’d choose to visit before the capital: hell, anywhere tropical, the Mariana Trench, a deeper pit of hell, my mother’s house.”


My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free paperback copy for review.

See Susan’s review for a more enthusiastic response.



The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James: A twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. (See my full review.)


Supper Club by Lara Williams: A great debut novel with strong themes of female friendship and food. The Supper Club Roberta and Stevie create is performance art, but it’s also about creating personal meaning when family and romance have failed you. (See my full review.)


The other three books on the shortlist are:

  • Skin by Liam Brown: A dystopian novel in which people become allergic to human contact. I think I’ll pass on this one.
  • Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin: A debut novel by a Norwegian author that proceeds backwards to examine the life of a woman struggling with endometriosis and raising a young daughter. I’m very keen to read this one.
  • Spring by Ali Smith: I’ve basically given up on Ali Smith – and certainly on the Seasons quartet, after DNFing Winter.

(The Not the Booker Prize will be announced on the Guardian website this Friday the 11th.)


Have you read something from the (Not the) Booker shortlist(s)? Any predictions for next week?

28 responses

  1. Wow, you’ve done a lot better than me with both these shortlists! I have only read one off both: Girl, Woman, Other, which was superb and so I have to back it to win. I’d be up for reading Night Boat to Tangier and Frankisstein – as you know, the transhumanism themes in To Be A Machine fascinated me and I didn’t think either Eaves or McEwan dealt with these well. With you on skipping the others! I never much get on with the Not the Booker list either.

    By the way, I’m also meant to be reviewing the Evaristo for that blog tour…


    1. Hmm, I’ll check with my contact at Midas PR; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they accidentally double-booked us for the Ake Book Festival blog tour! If it comes to it, you should review it since you’ve already read it and loved it. I could always host an extract instead.

      I’ll be keen to see what you make of Frankissstein if you do read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry, just saw this – glad it’s sorted!


  2. We are as one over the Booker! The Everisto is the only one I’m keen to read. I can recommend Ellman’s Mimi if you fancy another Ellman. Sorry to hear that you didn’t get on with Flames. It was an unexpected hit for me having overcome my magic realism allergy to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Especially after seeing Annabel’s recent review, I would definitely read Mimi and perhaps Sweet Desserts from Ellmann’s back catalogue.

      I didn’t like Flames as much as I hoped to, but the writing certainly was striking.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t fancy any of them although I keep being tempted by the content in Girl, Woman, Other and now Ali is going to pass me her copy (she couldn’t get into it so that’s quite funny). Why have you given up on Ali Smith? I said I was going to read the whole quartet once it was out (not sure why) but I’m wavering now myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do hope I get on well with the Evaristo, as I have this blog tour coming up and I’ve also won tickets to see her speak in London later in the month. I have only ever read part of Mr. Loverman (before my NetGalley download expired) and I remember enjoying it.

      My last two Ali Smith attempts, The Accidental and Winter, were both DNFs. I am finding her style gimmicky nowadays. I’ve read five of her others; of those, Artful was my favourite. I think I will still go back to read How to be both, but otherwise I’m wary.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, you certainly don’t mince your words over the hyped prize contenders! I haven’t read any, although I was thinking of attempting some of them (Night Boat to Tangier I’d heard good things about), but I am completely with you on the latest Ellmann tome. Life is too short to read someone else’s random ruminations, I’ve got too many of my own. Like you, I might attempt some of her earlier novels.


    1. I guess I don’t feel like these authors, particularly the literary superstars like Atwood and Rushdie, ‘need’ me to be their reader. I’m pleased for Ellmann that she’s gotten more attention through the shortlisting, but it doesn’t mean I want to subject myself to 1000 pages!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The Evaristo is pretty great, I thought – it’d be my choice, were I a judge. Was also very impressed with Supper Club, which transcended its potentially Rooney-derivative description to be its own strange and wonderful thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even though I haven’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, I’ll be rooting for it to win too!


  6. I’m feeling nothing but disappointment overall in many of these literary award lists this year – the Booker, the Giller, etc. They’ve all fizzled out for me. 😦 There aren’t many on the Booker shortlist that I’m interested in reading – I wouldn’t mind reading Elif Shafak’s book – I thought about Levy’s too but you’ve got me rethinking it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I’m feeling less than excited this year. Give the Levy a try: you’ll know within 20 or 30 pages whether it’s for you.


  7. I loved The Testaments, though I am already an Atwood fan. I tried to get into Girl, Woman, Other but just couldn’t. The only other one I am interested in reading at the moment is the Jeanette Winterson. I am drawn more and more to my old books, lots of the new books coming out don’t interest me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see how those three would appeal to your book club. I too often get my head turned by new books and neglect the older ones on my shelves!


  8. Oh! Someone else who doesn’t ‘get’ Atwood! I thought I was the only sentient adult, or female adult anyway, who doesn’t get on with her work at all. Mind you, I’m not good with dystopian fiction generally. Now I know I’m not quite alone, perhaps I can decline to give her latest a go with an easy mind. Thank you.


    1. I do enjoy Atwood in general; I’ve read 18 of her books now. But I prefer her realist stuff to the speculative fiction, and I haven’t been tempted to give Handmaid’s a reread, let alone pick up the sequel.


      1. Right. That’s interesting. Avoid dystopia and I may be ok?

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I think The Blind Assassin is her best. I also very much enjoyed Surfacing and Hag-Seed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually, I enjoyed Hag-Seed too. Time to revisit Atwood, maybe….


  9. I reserved the Ellmann at the library (on the strength of her last book, Mimi, which I enjoyed) – anyway, Ducks arrived yesterday and I almost fainted when I picked it up – I’m unlikely to read 1000 pages… At some stage, I will read the Levy (I thought Hot Milk was remarkable), and I’ll have serious FOMO if I don’t read The Testaments!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re the third person who’s been enthusiastic about Mimi recently. I will definitely have to read it! I placed a library hold on Ducks as well, thinking I might try to skim it before Monday’s announcement. As it hasn’t arrived yet, that now seems unlikely…

      I thought Hot Milk was great, too, so I was disappointed to not really get into her new one.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Out of all of those, I’ve just read The Deborah Levy which I really enjoyed – Hot MIlk was better, but I did enjoy the new one. I have Evaristo, Barry, Winterson and Lanchester in my oiles to get to eventually. I’ve discovered another reason for non reading my black subscriber’s copy of the Ellmann – it’s signed too! I haven’t had time to even look at the Not the Booker list this year.


    1. If Ellmann wins that will certainly be a collector’s item! Eric thinks it’ll be her or Evaristo.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. John Self also plumps for Evaristo in the Irish Times today (with Ellmann 2nd in his ranking).


  11. This years Booker List didn’t excite me much at all. I don’t much care for re-imaginings so that ruled out Winterson and Rushdie. I shuddered at the idea of ‘Ducks’ – smacks of self indulgence. I was given a copy of Testaments so will read it at some point just our of curiosity. Girl, Woman, Other was the only one that had even a smidgeon of appeal ….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. GWO is definitely worth seeking out — the style won’t be for everyone, but if you have a quick look at an Amazon preview or the first few pages in a shop you’ll know whether you’re likely to get on with it. I’m sure The Testaments will be very readable.


      1. Good suggestion to use the preview function – I never think about that….

        Liked by 1 person

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