The Man-Booker Long List and What They Missed

For some reason, the Man Booker is still my favorite literary prize, and every year I await the release of their longlist selection with anticipation and glee. Some years they get it right, some years not quite, and they always overlook something spectacular. But fear not! I am here to shine the light on the darkness in my own special irreverent way. It’s my blog, and I can say what I want, so here you go.

Here are the books the committee thought were the bee’s knees in 2016:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury Circus)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

I am chagrined that I’ve only read three of these, but Autumn, Swing Time, and The Underground Railroad (despite the nauseating over-hype) are also on my radar to read.. Some of these books I’ve never heard of, but plan to investigate.

Of the three I’ve read, only two really belong on this list:  Lincoln in the Bardo and History of Wolves. Not so much, Exit West. Why not, you ask? I think literary critics and prize committees focus too heavily on books of the non-British/American immigrant experience. Not to discount such literature, as many novels with topics in this area are eye-opening and important, but I think they’re often heavily weighted and are given a few too many bonus points. The topic is politically relevant, but in literature it’s also trendy, which I find off-putting. The market is saturated. Exit West is not without merit, but I’m not sure it belongs with these others on the list.

Exit West just doesn’t cut the Booker mustard. It’s fine. The writing is good, the premise is intriguing. Two lovers from an unnamed country at the outbreak of civil war flee their nation for idyllic lands and also maneuver through the ups and downs of their relationship as a couple. The description of the development of the civil war is genius, how it creeps so slowly that the city’s inhabitants almost don’t recognize its gravity until it’s too late to leave.

But  . . .

At a sparsely-formatted 231 pages, the book is so short as to inhibit character development. Even worse, there’s a glaring deus ex machina that is just outrageous. Every part of the book is viciously realistic, then all of a sudden there’s a left turn into sci-fi that only cheapens the brutal reality of the original story. How did this get an editor’s ok?

If you haven’t read the book, I’ll clue you in. It’s not a spoiler — I think it’s even mentioned on the jacket copy. The characters can just leave an undesirable place through special doors that transport them across the world. Seriously. Contemporary, politically-aware plot that jumps the shark.

Had there been other elements of magical realism in the novel, I wouldn’t have protested so much. But the doors are it. There is no explanation of this sudden supernatural location-hopping. I’m flummoxed. Going along, fascinated and terrified with the escalating war, concerned for the characters, and then wham! They just go through a magical door and instantly escape to Greece. Now the story is no longer real, no longer actually possible, and nothing matters to me anymore.

Definitely check out Lincoln in the Bardo and History of Wolves, as both novels have a lot brain food to offer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t complain vehemently that the committee completely shit the bed by not recognizing the brilliance of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I have no idea what they were thinking. Maybe they were suffocated with the influx of immigrant-experience literature. Maybe they fell through a magic door to Antarctica before they were done reading it. I don’t know. I see through you, prize committee. Look beyond the expected choices.

Sinful Folk – Ned Hayes

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Set in medieval England, Sinful Folk follows Mear, a nun named Miriam disguised as a mute, old man. In Mear’s small village, five boys burned to death in a house fire, including Mear’s son, Christian. The fire was not an accident. The door was roped shut and the murderer has not been discovered. Mear and some village men decide to make the long trek to London to demand justice for their deaths, hauling the boys’ dead bodies in a cart behind them. Mear is going on the journey to discover her son’s killer, whom she believes may be one of her companions.

The historical detail and quality story-telling in this book was a surprise. I would categorize it as a historical thriller, though it’s not a swashbuckling, sword-fighting type of story. Sinful Folk is agonizingly suspenseful. It’s a slow burn, full of unreliable stories and questionable characters. It never lagged, never meandered, and I was riveted.

Along this journey we learn Mear’s backstory, why she is disguised, how she came to have a son, and why she can’t reveal her identity to any of her companions, even though she trusts many them with her life. The lives of these men are harsh. The winter is brutal and meat is scarce. It’s painfully cold, and the men are filthy and tortured with agonizing hunger. Every character is selfish, starving, and angry in their grief. The writing was above par, and the pacing was intense. I looked forward to reading this story every time I cracked the spine, and towards the end I eschewed chores, phones, and schedules to get to the end.

I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed the entire book, not just the ending, or the middle, as is so often the case. I was full of anticipation to read it as it reached its close. The author’s attention to detail only enhanced the mystery of Mear’s story.

Sinful Folk is a hidden gem. I don’t give out 5 stars on Goodreads readily, and this book deserves the praise.

The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore

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The Last Days of Night is the story of the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Which of them actually invented the lightbulb, and who has the legal control to provide electric light to the nation? Is A/C power even safe? This is the argument between alternating current versus direct current, and though it might sound scientific and dry, this fight involves scheming, betrayal, and attempted murder. The story is told from the vantage point of Paul Cravath, Westinghouse’s greenhorn wunderkind lawyer, who’s still wet behind the ears but thrilled to take on the challenge of bringing down Thomas Edison, one of the most powerful men in the country.

While the story is interesting, it reads like a legal thriller. Bottom line, the book is entertaining and, in this particular case, informative, but in actuality most of it is just a series of events. You know the procedure: everything will be revealed in bite-sized pieces and it’s all going to turn out all right in the end. I enjoyed the unexpected twists, the events were exciting, and the research behind the story, especially what Moore manipulated for plot reasons, was very well done. It’s a good story, and one that I wasn’t familiar with. The Last Days of Night is an original legal procedural,  and there’s engaging fiction woven with true events and real people. I was on Wikipedia more than once chasing down my own research questions.

The Last Days of Night is well done; it’s just not my usual type of historical fiction. If you’re at all interested in the history of this story, or would just like to dig into a fun, fast-paced legal thriller, then this is for you. It doesn’t disappoint, and each chapter leaves you wanting to turn to the next page.

Many thanks to the author, Random House, and NetGalley for the copy in exchange for my honest review.

The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

thesparrowThis book is really worth reading. The Janus-like bipolar cover can be confusing, but the words inside will blow your mind.

Here’s a very brief overview to entice you:

In the not-distant future, a young scientist monitoring signals from space discovers music coming from Alpha Centauri. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) organizes the first expedition to the planet of Rakhat, the origin of the music. Father Emilio Sandoz, along with seven of his colleagues, both secular and religious, travel to the planet to investigate the source of the music and make contact with the Singers.

The story is told in alternating time frames between the events of the mission to Rakhat and the subsequent interrogation of Father Sandoz, who is the only member of the expedition to return alive.

I alternated between loving this book and being tempted to bail on it. Here’s why:

What I didn’t like:

The rampant, overt Catholicism, and the nauseatingly saintly, outrageously open-minded, pious characters with tolerance for each other bordering on the saintly. The characters are locked in a spaceship for years together and never really have so much as a spat. When there is catastrophe, no one blames anyone else, no one loses their mind, no one has a breakdown. I find that level of absurd harmony harder to believe than aliens singing songs from Alpha Centauri.

What I really liked:

This book is brilliant in its anthropology and science of discovering a new people. The anthropology bent was interesting; the social framework of the aliens on Rakhat was well-grounded and fascinating. I love reading about possible other worlds, how the inhabitants organize social structure, language, government, and familial relationships. When the structure is well done, as it is in The Sparrow, the book seems believable and possible. If you like books with an anthropological concept, consider these others as well:  Anthropology in Fiction

The first 100 pages are all strictly for set up, so don’t let that deter you or tempt you to bail. The next 200 pages are really interesting, but repetitive. The last 100 pages fly by quickly, and the plot development is frenetic. The last 15 pages will make you read frantically, wide-eyed in disbelief and anguish, and then you’ll need to call your best friend and sob about why you’re in existential turmoil and how you’ll never be the same.

The major question this book offers is the religious cliché “why do bad things happen to good people?”, which is unanswerable. The bad things that happen in The Sparrow are beyond comprehension.

There is a sequel available, Children of God, in which Emilio Sandoz returns to Rakhat, but I’m not quite ready. I need to stare into the middle distance for a while and get my bearings before I read more. But I’ll definitely read more. I can’t look away for long.

Montpelier Parade – Karl Geary

todays-programme-montpelier-parade

I was intrigued by this short novel when I read the description that it’s about a teenage boy having an affair with an older woman, and it’s written in second person from the boy’s perspective. Is he genuinely in love with her? Is she taking advantage of him? Is he using her? An interesting premise, to be sure.

However, this novel fell flat for me. There are not many characters in this story, but each one was depressing and pathetic. No one evoked any sympathy from me. The main character and the reader’s voice, Sonny, vacillates between two emotions: phlegmatic and confused or aimlessly angry. His lover, the moribund Vera, is suicidal and taciturn. Their conversations, or rather I should say, exchange of words, are terse and sparse. There is no relationship development, only an acquiescence into sex.  Their “relationship” doesn’t even begin until halfway through the book, and then it just seems like a resigned inevitability. Even Sonny’s younger love interest, Sharon, is just desperate for attention. The entire book is just lonely.

I was grasping for meaning, and the only theme I could find was one of existential hopelessness. It’s dark and melancholy, but I still recommend it for readers who enjoy this type of morose psychological novel.

I thank Edelweiss, Karl Geary, and Catapult publishers for this advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

 

essex serpent

I’ve been waiting for months for The Essex Serpent to be available in the United States. Too often when I get overly excited about a book and wait so long for it, it doesn’t live up to my expectations, but The Essex Serpent delivered.

 

Set in the late 19th century, the story follows Cora Seaborne, newly widowed, but not exactly grieving. She is looking forward to a trip to Essex to explore the shorelines and look for fossils, possibly one good enough to make a name for herself at the museums in London. Another enticing motivation for Cora is the resurgence of sightings of the mythical Essex Serpent. It has a power over the small community of Aldwinter:  children go missing, men turn up drowned on the river banks, milk goes sour much too soon, and there’s a portent of something sinister in the air.

The story follows the mystery of the Essex Serpent superficially, but there is much more underlying the current of the relationships of the friends in Cora’s circle. Hearts are captured, inchoate friendships are challenged, and naturalism and religion become difficult to reconcile. The characters are what make this novel so believable. Each person in Cora’s life is multidimensional and complicated, as are their relationships with Cora.

The main characteristic that drew me in to this novel is its sense of place. The descriptions are imaginative, almost mystical. I could smell the salt on the air, feel the dampness at the shore, and see the indigo in the stones gripped by Cora’s friend who is delusional with consumption.

This book is atmospheric, full of dreary Victorian greys and blues. The language is subtle and so nuanced, in fact, that if you read too quickly you may miss something critical. Each character interaction, however trivial, often results in grand ramifications.

There are themes of early social consciousness of homelessness, how fear can drive the public into a frenzy, and how intellectual compatibility can often surpass in importance anything else in a relationship. The writing is delicate, often beautiful, and never heavy-handed. At times, in my assessment, the characters seemed to have too modern of ideals, and were often too accepting of progressive notions, but it did not detract from the story.

Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a compelling Victorian novel with a gothic feel. 5 stars all the way.

 

Rush OH! – Shirley Barrett

Rush OH! is the battle cry when one sees a whale – a call to arms to run to the boats.rush oh

Set in the early 1900s in New South Wales, Rush OH! is a snippet of history when whalemen along the Australian coast would rush the waters to lance their fortunes. Unlike in America, the whalemen were not gone from their homes for years at a time, but instead lived along the coast to chase the whales near shore.

This is the tale of the life Mary Davidson, the 19-year-old daughter of a brave whaling captain, who lives among the oarsmen boarding in her home. Mary is learning her role in the family after the death of her mother: she must cook and feed the crew, take care of her younger siblings, and parcel out her feelings for one new whaler in particular, John Beck. Rush OH! is a coming-of-age tale based loosely on historical anecdotes from the area, including one Killer whale named Tom who assisted the whalemen in herding and trapping the whales.

There are humorous stories of the whale crew, but there are also some dark corners in the backgrounds of these men. The feast-or-famine life of whaling is full of hardships, and  often attracts men who have nothing left to lose.

I appreciated the care taken to create an atmosphere in this story: the description of the flensing of the whales, the excitement and fear of the whale hunt, and also the depictions of the Australian coastline with local flora and fauna. The descriptions and inclusions are necessary to the story without being pedantic, which makes for a compelling setting. The characters also represent the differences of interpretation of whaling and how the fear, adrenaline, and desperation can affect people in different ways.

This is a quick read sprinkled with small illustrations that add to the vintage feel of the book. I really enjoyed this one.