Book Reviews


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Click on a book to read the review. Click again to get rid of it before reading the next one. (If you don't the layout of the page will get messy quickly.) The year is when I read the book which is often, but not always, close to when it was published. Spoiler alert: every review refers to every bit of the narrative. They all give the end away. Best to read the book first. And it is all ...

... just my humble opinion


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Just my humble opinion again

William Shakespeare was a playwright roughly contemporaneously with Elizabeth I in England. He wrote a couple of dozen plays, including tragedies and comedies. He also wrote historical fiction with many historical inaccuracies, many of which are now widely accepted as urban truths. Most of his work was written in iambic pentameter. His work is ludicrously overrated.

His work is extremely good, and he has always been rightly regarded as a classic writer, arguably the greatest of his time and one of the greatest of his century. For years, indeed centuries, he had a very high reputation.

But then at some point in the 1800s something very strange happened to this reputation. He ceased to be regarded as an ordinary writer and his works became instead regarded as some kind of embodiment of an ideal. His writing moved beyond ordinary criticism. In addition the Shakespeare canon joined that rather odd set of knowledge, alongside a knowledge of latin and greek and the greek myths, which is used by the aristocracy in the UK to pointlessly flaunt what they call a classical education, as opposed to an academic or useful one.

As years go by, Shakespeare's body of work seems only to grow in reputation from its already peculiar position in the canon of English literature. Many sources seem to regard it as having fully half the value of the complete set, and in some cases perhaps the greater half. One cannot get a school qualification or a university qualification or any other kind of recognition of English literature in the UK without study a huge volume of Shakespeare's work, and this is certainly true of no other writer.

Around half the questions on English literature in University Challenge seem to be based on Shakespeare's work.

It is quite acceptable in UK society to dismiss any personal knowledge of the Noble Prize for literature, or the Booker Prize, or the Pulitzer, or Costa, or of Tolstoy and the Russian masters, or of French literature, or of any pretence at writing oneself. But it is not acceptable in society to admit to an ignorance of Shakespeare.

His work is regarded as being beyond criticism. For example it is not the done thing to state an opinion that his work is not good, or not favourable to the speaker. One cannot state that the body of work of a Nobel laureate, say, is equal to or greater than the body of work of Shakespeare. To do so in normal English society would be widely regarded only as a sign of a misunderstanding of correct logic or correct grammatical syntax.

It is all a very odd thing to do to the reputation of someone who was an extremely good writer, and who produced many good plays and poems.

There are many people who regard themselves as being well read because they know Shakespeare, but who have not read a single book published in the last 10 years. It is a bit like meeting a sports fan who can ramble on for hours about the old greats, about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and all of their achievements, but then when you ask them if they saw the game at the weekend their mouth drops open and they gape at you in open astonishment.

"Game at the weekend? What on Earth would I be doing watching a game this weekend? Why would I want to do that? I was busy in the library researching the archives for the 1930s."

There are people like that of course, we are all geeks about something and good fun it is too. But in sport that is a niche thing, almost everyone is most interested in the games played today.

But not in English literature. Not in England. Not today. Mostly, it is Shakespeare.

I don't get it.

2018: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

2018: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

2018: Snap by Belinda Bauer

Longlisted for this year's Booker. A couple of years ago the appearance of The North Water on the Booker long list led to a debate about what is literature and what is a thriller and where do they meet? No such debate required this time around. This is an out and out thriller with no pretence at anything else.

The story is nasty at times, with lots of serrated knives and an abundance of pregnant women. I suppose for the sort of people who like that sort of thing then that is the sort of thing they like. There is a bad cop from the city who breaks the rules and some unruly kids and a nosy neighbour who happens to be the good cop's mother and, well, you get the idea. It all rumbles along. When the plot requires a bit of thought it gets, instead, an outrageous narrative device which would be lame in an extemporised campfire tale and continues going regardless. In the end there is a disappointing lack of twist and the killer turns out to be not the good cop and not the suspect's wife but in fact the suspect. Perhaps there was a double bluff there which passed me by.

Characterisation is cardboard, main plot is nasty, basic plot and character setting is hackneyed, intermittent devices are at times ridiculous. None of this is necessarily a criticism, arguably much of it forms part of the ride for a book of this genre. Most of it is true for Agatha Christie's books, many of which are wonderful. This one certainly is thrilling and I read the second half in one sitting. The book does what is says on the tin and has no pretences to do anything else. An adequate, perhaps even a fine book of its genre, just a bit lacking in an ingenious plot twist. Just one question remains...

...what on earth is it doing on a Booker long list, other than justifying my decision to stop following closely this increasingly ridiculous competition?

2018: In Dark Places by Wyl Menmuir

I ordered this online and was not sure what I was getting. It turned out to be a short short story, padded out to about 40 pages by including 10 blank pages at the start, setting a very small number of words per page and including some pictures.

I guess the person who wrote the blurb hadn't read the book. The story tells of a honeymoon couple who take a special trip through bits of the Cheddar Gorge not normally open to tourists. He is given an unfortunate character as a bit of a prat; she is nicer, at first sceptical but later tuning in to the soul of the environment. Around them are ghostly traces of a group of potholers who died in the caves in slightly mysterious circumstances.

Descriptions and atmosphere are quite good and, well, that is about it really.

I don't want to carp because I thought Wyl Menmuir's earlier work was wonderful. Indeed, this story is atmospheric and is well done for what it is. The book is small, but it is attractive and it is apparently a limited edition with good quality paper and an eco production. While these things are good, they do not add substance to the writing.

I guess that I am just disappointed because I wanted to read a second substantial piece from this writer and got only something very slight. Shouldn't a professional writer, a good writer, who has been Booker long listed, who hasn't published for over a year be offering a bit more than this for the 50 kronor I coughed up? I wrote about 8 of these last year and I am none of the above!

2018: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I think I ended up being a wee bit disappointed in this. It was my first Zadie Smith book and the reviews of her and of this book are so great that I expected something wonderful, but I feel that it was only very good. This makes it disappointing in a very unfair way, of course.

The book claims to pursue a special childhood friendship through the different paths in life taken by the two girls involved. I found that this was only partly true. The friendship did not seem particularly special to me. Narrative was in the first person of one of the girls. The other girl danced for a bit, but then dropped out and had children and became trapped in the same poverty cycle in which she had been brought up. The hero of the book lived an unusual life and it is really this which, for me, made the story less emotive. Its lessons and the emotional journey became one of celebrity watching and not real life, and this distanced me from the actions in the narrative.

In the end, the tale became one of the daughter of a celebrity working as the assistant to a celebrity, with a childhood friend now stuck in a poor estate sending them abusive emails. The story heads off to a village somewhere in Western Africa for chunks also. But here there are comments to be made around hackneyed and prejudged assumptions about villages in Western Africa, and it all gets a bit confusing to tell what is hackneyed and what is satire on being hackneyed. Does this confusion mean that it has hit the mark exactly right? I am not sure.

There is a skin colour theme throughout also, but this all depends on the assumption that dark skinned people brought up in London share in a special way a cultural heritage with American slaves and African villagers because their skin colour is also not white, and this is controversial. I do not agree with it, and found little in this story to convince me otherwise, other than the oft repeated assumption that it must be so.

The storyline was a little jumbled and haphazard, but I guess that followed the life of the narrator. I struggled to find much empathy with any of the main characters.

I'm not sure that this story has much in it to relate to me, or other readers. I felt distanced from the themes and lessons in the narrative. Or perhaps the whole point was to throw up controversy and cliche and struggle and I have just failed to grasp the level at which the satire comes in and have missed it all. This is very possible as well of course.

Clearly from rereading the above I struggle also to find much to say that is really positive here. I want to, because I want to like this author and all the positive reviews that there are of her. Perhaps this is just the wrong book for me, so lets suspend judgement and try again.

2018: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

A beautiful set of short stories, wonderfully told and exquisitely themed and laid out. It is amongst the very best writing that one could imagine, although I am becoming to expect nothing less from the wonderful Jhumpa Lahiri.

All of these stories are based around immigrant families from India making a home in New England, and especially about the generational divide that opens out between the first and second immigrant generations, and especially amongst the women.

Lahiri has the ability and willingness, shared with Colm Toibin but few others, to set her stories amongst ordinary people living ordinary lives. She writes about only events which we can recognize and share from our own life experiences, but in doing so she draws out a meaning and richness which makes the tale thrilling, without recourse to thrilling events, and so can enrich our own understanding of who we are and why we behave the way we do.

It is wonderfully done. Lahiri's work remains resolutely with the same groups and sorts of people. But her ability to pick out their lives and expose the humanity of their actions puts this author amongst the best that there have ever been.

This work is that good.

2018: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a fantastic book. I bought it (actually, was bought for me) just after his being awarded the Nobel Prize, and it still managed to exceed expectations, which is not an easy trick to pull off.

The story is one of memory, on the differences between memories and real life, on propaganda and mass false untruth, on the rewriting of history. Brilliantly, the author interlaces two perspectives on this theme: one of the victors in a civil war settling a mass untruth upon the civilian population that their methods to win the war were civil (they weren't), but also one on an ordinary, elderly couple who thought that their treatment of their long lost son was loving and fair (it wasn't). The story is set in a cloudy, pre-historic, half-mythic, post-Arthurian world in which real history and popular myth can swim and intermix, which of course re-emphasises the theme all over again.

Characters in the tale represent truth and falsehood, and it is clear that a great battle must inevitably take place. But who represents what? And even if we discover who represents what where do our sympathies lie? And what effect will this battle have? Who knows?

At the end of the tale the mists clear and truth is revealed, which causes nothing but grief to everyone concerned. While the reader knows that their thoughts and sympathies should be with the victims of the terrible war, in fact it is all too much to take in. Instead the personality of the writing brings it much more towards the elderly couple who are torn apart, although they never wanted to be, because of the appearance of that awful imposter Truth. Isn't that just like real life!

The reader's emotions are left raw and exposed. The tale has been gripping and fascinating. The direction of the story has been inventive and full of metaphor. The world conjured up has been mythical and yet reflective of reality, both ancient and modern.

Brilliant.

2018: Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

This year's Pulitzer Prize winner. It is remarkably light and frothy after the significant tome from last year, perhaps they wanted a respite or something.

I cannot say that I really loved this one. Part of me feels that the literary world loved it because it presented a spoof of the literary world and everyone loves being sent up. For those of us outside the clique, however, it was all a bit tiresome.

Spoofs and send ups of various stock literary characters and pointless international travel and a hedonistic homosexual lifestyle. More fishsticks than 7 hour lamb.

Ho hum.

2018: In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

A mighty tome this, with a mighty theme of the settlement of the wild west. In this book a Swedish teenager sets out with his brother for a new life in the New World as part of the great Swedish emigration of the 1860's. They aim for New York but a set of circumstances separate them and sweep him round to San Francisco instead and he sets out to traverse the continent on foot to link back with his brother. The journey takes him across mighty plains, and across the full range of human depravities to meet with adventures on the way but unfortunately never again his family.

The novel has a grand plan and the writer uses grand and descriptive language to sweep up entire states and also to pick down into the detail of individual grains of sand. The saga is full, becomes almost mythic. The hero is indefatigable. It is all huge and mighty.

But

There is a downside also. The circumstances of the hero's life push him into solitude and lonliness, and this pushes the story into something unusual: a mighty, sweeping myth with mostly a cast of one. It is a bit odd, which is not to say that it does not come off, but it does mean than the saga has lots of mountains and rivers and trekking, but not a lot of human interaction or communication onto which to interpret some meaning for it all.

The story shows human vice and depravity, which at times might be realistic, but is often a bit camped up, and comes across as a bit too vicelike, a bit too depraved, a bit unrealistic. This weakens the plot and makes it more burlesque and less gritty than it might have been.

The author sticks to his guns and drives our hero into complete isolation with no reward of a deathbed meeting with family at the end of it all. This means that the ultimate message and meaning of the work is, well, err, I'm not sure.

Some great descriptive work about the loneliness of an individual lost amongst the sweeping sands on the great plains, but not much humanity to fill it out. Great writing that got bit lost in search of a story.

Older Stuff

2017: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

Well, it is a tome. It weighs in at 860 pages, three times the length of others on this year's Booker lists, but that is only half the story because word density per page is 150 - 200% of the others also. It is more than 6 times longer than Exit West.

This book gives a biography of a person, but does so in 4 simultaneous versions, with same actors, same places, but different stories and actions. There is no obvious artifice - no sliding doors on a train - to separate the stories, although there is a key point in the fortune of the father's business which acts as an indirect separator.

Writing is extremely good. It is detailed and meticulous (Walter Scott would probably approve). It brings in a large cast of characters and is consistent, across the separate tales. In general financial success breeds unhappiness; a natural born writer becomes a writer in different ways; people act according to their personalities which don't change, despite circumstances being dictated by actions which do change.

3 of the characters die off, and in the final page the author makes it clear that the 4th character represents an autobiography of himself.

It was all so complex that I ended up keeping notes to separate out the tales. But.

The core points of this approach could have been made in a short story of 50 pages. There is far too much detail. The stories are not full life biographies because they get stuck in adolescence and early adulthood, and disappear into rabbit holes of losing virginity and splitting up from first girlfriends in mind-numbing detail; also student politics and protest marches in the same mind-numbing detail. The novel tries to make points about human nature based on the superficiality of decisions made by a 17yo, and it all gets a bit petty. The autobiography of Alan Partridge kept popping into my head.

This same complexity meant that I built up no empathy with any of the characters, because there was no such thing as a single character, and this seriously disrupted my emotional connections to the book.

The author gave far too soft a ride to the central character, who was lauded as a hero by those around him for producing teenage poems and unconventional novels. It started to become an imagined utopia of what the author had wanted to happen to him during his own early life. Alan Partridge again?

A first class piece of writing, but really unfortunate that it all went down such narrative rabbitholes. A more conventional tale that moved quickly on from adolescence to more interesting periods of life would have been a far more worthy focus for writing of this quality.

2016: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Sigh, read about 20% of this. Shot through it quickly too, and could have completed for sake of another 120 minutes I think, but not sure that I want to give up that much of my life for this. A stream of consciousness novel (don't think that I have ever finished one of these :) ) around life of black youngster growing up in a racist USA making its point by radicalising the racism through the eyes of a black person. I'm sure it is enjoyed by the sort of people who enjoy that sort of thing. Not me.

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2013: We Need New Names by No Violet Bolawayo

Thought I might drop this after only a few pages, but stayed with it and became much more drawn in very quickly. Narrator is full of passion and feeling and life, quite unlike the above, but in this case her young age and consequent refusal to grasp long term horror of what she sees provides the distance required to present the scene unfolding without falling into the events themselves. While the narrator is no angel, the reader quickly takes up empathy with her, and even with her less angelic friends. Contrast of life in US is a nice shift, which reinvigorates the tale being told, while still preserving links with the opening half of the book. although the tale of the death of the activist told through the youngsters acting out the drama in a game is vivid and well told. But still, perhaps there is a lack of originality with telling a disturbing tale through young eyes. Perhaps the author tries to squeeze in too many key events of life in both environments, with a few too many dramatic things happening. Perhaps the author is guilty of treating Africa as a single place on a couple of occasions, just as her narrator complains that others do this. Quite different from the above, in that this book is more disjoint, more uneven, relies more on standard artifices, but is full of passion and emotion and generates the emotion of the reader. One can fall in love with this tale.

2016: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Booker 2016 longlist outsider, from a very small and independent publisher. This modern novel is written very much in the style of strongly presbyterian 19th century Scottish literature, and so is immediately a strong favourite with me!

The narrative tells of a triple murder by a young lad from the village, and gives different accounts through witness statements and accounts of the criminal trial, but also gives over half the novel to the autobiographical memoir of the killer. This style, both organisational and narrative, is immediately reminiscent of Hogg's Private Memoirs, of course, and I suspect that Faulks' Engelby is influential also. The story is well told. Perhaps takes liberties with devices such as the literacy and anglicised language of the memoir for obvious reasons. Perhaps also a couple of errors: I'm sure that school leaving age for that time and class was not 16. The structure, including the bloodstained cover for the print, works well. The ending is well integrated, and I am impressed that the author did not sugarcoat the ending, nor draw it out into a Poirot-like definitive finale. I think the outcome was there for the reader, but I had to look and come to my own conclusions. Perhaps other readers will reach a different conclusion, and I think that is a compliment to this novel with this structure.

Quote of the year: "I had no plans. To make plans is a sin against Providence." I might get this etched onto my List of TTDT paper :)

Very good opener for this year.

2013: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

An authentic capture of a 19th century style of writing, although perhaps a little irreverant of God for those years. Immaculately constructed, and occasionally a lovely purely Wodehousian line pops up unexpected! Paraphrase - The man's name was Drake, although upon seeing him one was reminded less of the great naval captain, than of the waterfowl, which he resembled. Great fun with murders and secret plans and gold digging, all centring around a private meeting in a smoke filled room. Impressed that novel maintained its structure towards the final denoument.

The book is told in a neat structure with each chapter exactly half the length of the previous one. This has the final chapter length just one sentence, and all of the ending of the story is told in the final chapter chapter heading. This is a nice touch. I much regret that I read this on a kindle and only cottoned on to this really late on!

A few pieces remained unexplained, including Anna's feelings about Emery and her ability to forge his signature, or are we to yield romantic fancy on this issue?! Very enjoyable, gripping, clever spiralling of the plot, dancing about across different threads of time, as it closes in upon that final chapter with it's heading depicting the actions of the 12 protagonists, described over so many pages in the first chapter. Very pleasing. A great work.

2013: Harvest by Jim Crace

Good solid read. Focuses in on a single week in which outsiders enter a village, and then not just law and order but whole way of life deconstructs. Story deals with medieval savagery of everyday life in a matter of fact way. Narrator is clverly contructed neutral figure, and manages to view events with a dispassionate, distant eye. Recurrent theme draws back to narrator's own departed wife and love, whose departure detached him from ongoing life, and so is a factor in allowing him to view in such a dispassionate way. Tale is from so long ago and narrator is so dispassionate and savagery is only shown behind closed doors and effect of all of this is to keep the reader's passions at bay, and the story refuses to grip to quite the extent it might. All in all, quite faultless, very well told, full of mystery but steadfastly refuses to become a mystery. Cannot fault the storytelling, but I think it unlikely that anyone will fall in love with this tale.

2015: The Green Road by Anne Enright

Well written story of an Irish family, a Matriarch and 4 diverse children, firstly telling stories of the four children and the four different ways they travelled, and then bringing them all home for one last Christmas. The first four chapters of the book could almost stand as 4 independent short stories. The second half brings them all together. While the book is well written and everything, it failed to really grab me. The family Christmas was a pretty grim affair, with most characters treading the path of dismal family christmases as already laid out by a generation of comedians. As such it was neither enjoyable nor particularly emotional, and at the end of the story everyone went back home and carried on. I suppose I have been spoilt with this style of novel, having read a lot of Colm Toibin and Niall Williams lately. Very well written, good characterisation, (although I cannot say I liked any of them much) but a tame plot. Not very memorable.

2014: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Tiresome and unfunny, I'm really surprised that this book got through to the shortlist, especially over Niall Williams' far superior work. Story of an odd misanthrope, tiresome Red Sox fan, boring dentist, becomes enveloped in a strange cult-like plot to set him up as one of the chosen ones from a race of people mentioned in the Pentateuch who seem to have a perticularly miserable history. Unhappily this turns out not to be a superficial plot structure to expose deeper elements of this person and his environment, but actually to be a justified claim which eventually captures this person's life. I was skim reading long passages of biblical history long before I got close to the end. The worst of the shortlisted books I have read since starting this thing 3 years ago.

2014: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

A few days after completing this one it grows on me as a very good book. Much of the book is taken up with a gruesome depiction of life in a Japanese POW camp. This is set against the hero's great romantic tragedy as he marries one woman but spends his life ruing his fatal attraction to another. The intensity of feeling of life's great romatic tragedy and dilemma is only intensified by contrast with the unfathomable physical suffering of this 3 year hiatus in life for the hero and his companions.

The national view of the great heroism of the hero's action is continually brought into direct conflict with his own perceptions, cut through with doubt and ignominious motivations. One wonders how many other national heroes have similar conflict.

Although the life story goes on to completion and finishes with the death of the hero, there is still a feeling that the book is 50 pages too long. This great work which focuses on the critical mundanities of life - the very basics of survival in the camp and the pain of lovers torn apart - ends with two fantastic additions to the tale. The hero drives into a great forest fire and rescues his family in extraordinary circumstances which is exciting and thrilling, but adds a touch of the fantastic which comes out of nowhere. There is also a twist in the tale whereby the man who died most tragically in the camp turns out to be a blood relation of the hero. There is no need for this. This man's story is so powerful without this. A rather silly twist in the end adds nothing to it.

Good story, well told. The central part grabs one's emotion as any tale on this subject must. But the contrast with life's great romance is well done and the character of the hero eventually stands out from the horrors of the camp, which is achievement in itself.

2014: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

In the 1930s and 40s it was quite trendy for American psychologists to adopt chimp babies and bring them up with their own children or at least own families. Then children grew up and chimps had to go. Astonishingly, instead of going somewhere really nice as befits a family member, these chimps would invariably be returned to the lab and be prepared for the next experiment, whatever that might be. Imagine the devastation if the young human child involved discovered the fate of this other child, with whom they shared a sibling empathy, permitted by their parents.

Fowler's book explores family relationships and bonds broken and reforged, but with the particular case of a chimp family. It considers memories from childhood, and questions what might be real and what might be imagined. But it does so with the extra pathos that something really devastating and separation really severe had actually happened to a family member.

It is an unusual read, with challenging human feelings and gradual understanding of events and meanings forming around a very unusual family setup. Fowler tells the story very well and grips the reader. At one point she slips into a polemic around animal rights activists and the tale loses balance and complexity, but recovers. Having taken the reader through times of trauma she cannot bear to push this through to the end, and contrives an ending which is certainly happy, and almost cheesy.

Unusual, challenging, invokes some complex issues, well told tale. Something similar could perhaps be set in late 1930s Germany where the coming tragedy would be human and more terrible. Fowler probably does well to tell a more unusual story. I don't think this is great, but I think it is a very good book.

2017: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

A rival to Elmet for the most disappointing book on the 2017 Booker shortlist. I found this book unsatisfactory and so did many online reviews. 'Good in bits but failed to meet its objectives' seems to be a reasonable summary. There was good writing there, an attempt to create a narrative which hops about the timeline in the way that Muriel Spark does so well, but which happens less well here, and poor characterisation and inconsistent first person narrative.

The story is an attempt to expose mistreatment of a small child by religious fundamentalists which end in the child dying of a treatable disease. Narrative is given through the teenage babysitter, an attempt to create a teenage misfit which fails because of inconsistent narration.

Neither the small child nor the teenage are given a realistic or consistent character. I wonder if the author really has much experience with either. The story meanders along and includes a few stretches of canoeing on the lakes as a bonus to set the scene. It all gets lost and by the time the end comes, telegraphed with the subtlety of a herd of elehants, one does not much know or care.

2017: Montpelier Parade by Karl Geary

A well written book, with good characterisation and good pace, but the narrative is a bit unlikely and offbeat. The story tells of an older woman grieving for her teenage son who died of MS. As part of this process she has a strange affair with a similar-aged teenage boy while she completes her descent into depression and suicide. The story is told from the point of view of the teenage boy who is immature and lives a deprived life, which makes the affair with this older, richer, more sophisticated woman all the more strange.

It is a striking narrative, and told from an unusual viewpoint it comes across as a bit odd and surreal. I'm not convinced that it is very realistic - I don't think that depression works like that, although I am really not sure - and it means that much of the book is given over to a description of this deprived, wasteful and aimless existence of the very poor of Belfast, which is all a bit crap really.

Not a very cheerful book, and the characters are not rounded out quite enough to engage the reader in why it is they are doing what they are doing. In particular the older woman is left enigmatically untouched which helps produce a surprise ending, but does this at the expense of an incomplete description of the character and the her actions as the novel progresses, which is unsatisfactory.

Quite good.

2014: J by Howard Jacobson

Not a happy book. J gives a view of a post holocaust world. It's not clear if this holocaust is a second or an alternative event. It is clear that it was intended to have been total, and the reader implicitly learns that it was an event that occurred more through social structure, enabled through social media, and less through military means. The story focuses on a couple who turn out to be single survivors of the bloodline.

It is an odd read, invoking an horrific event, but doing so in a way which is strangely inconsistent and untenable. The story takes place in Germany, clearly identified through Wagnerian references, but outside influence either in or out is scoped out. The people deal with guilt and reconstruction through entirely internal means, with no outside reference. It is assumed that social media and even national communication no longer happens although there is no totalitarian infrastructure to enforce such a thing. The absurdity of single survivors enables the narrative structure, but distances from reality.

Against this odd and untenable backdrop the characters do their thing, and behave in ways which are both human and yet unpredictable. The backdrop of violence seems gratuitous given the lack of realistic links to the present human condition.

I'm not altogether sure why the reader was taken down this dark and miserable sidestreet when links to realistic and tenable human condition are so strained.

2017: The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca F John

I thought that this was a very good book, and a really promising opener. The book opens with a really good short chapter which ends with the protagonist getting killed by a car. In just a few pages the author builds up a character, a personality, a story, the reader's attention. This is all done well enough to bring out genuine shock and outrage when it all happens, only a few pages in, and this is really well done. It sets up much of the rest of what follows.

The depiction of grief that follows is set against the Bright Young Things of the 1920's, taking care to make these people ordinary fallible folk also and not the idle rich. This works well. In addition the hero is set up as an unlikely single father, which works less well.

A new character is introduced, starting out as a conman who works on the recently bereaved, but as the story unfolds he becomes a genuine lover and gives up the con.

There are many narrative weaknesses: the baby is introduced to make the father more tragic, but then conveniently foisted onto a neighbour almost continually to allow the father to play with the BYTs in his grief; the fake psychic actually gives up real information when needed by the narrative; the conman is supernaturally elusive when first entering the plot, but then turns out to be natural; the BYTs are centered around a omnipotently benificent figure which allows for their life of idle gluttonly to be set against working backgrounds.

The author never works at bringing the plot to heel, she just pulls in magic to make stuff happen. But for all that it flows well, the characterisation is good, the conflict is introduced and the reader has empathy.

Very good storytelling. I think the book would have been better if the psychic, the conman, the financing of the BYTs had all been just straight and not supernatural, and the story was just of grief conflicting with that lifestyle. There might have been a very good tale there.

Still a very enjoyable read.

2013: Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lowland is a really good book. It starts with a slightly strange change of tense in the first two paragraphs. The story starts with a tale of two boys, who grow up together, and then are separated when the less adventurous one goes to the US for further education. The more adventurous gets involved with political unrest. After 100 pages there is a change of direction when the young man at home dies, and the older man returns home to mourn his brother, and returns to the US with his brother's wife and unborn child, largely estranged from his parents. The central part of the tale slows down and follows the mostly unhappy marriage and slow separation of the married couple, as he in particular pours his love and energy into an intense relationship with his (step) daughter. Father and daughter return to India following his father's death, and return to find the mother has fled the family home. The daughter grows up independent and nomadic. Crisis comes as she declares a late pregnancy, and he makes a late declaration of his step parenthood. She leaves, but soon returns. There is a final and traumatic and unwelcome and brief return of the mother. The book ends with a return to India and final view of the death of the original brother, which has been told already from several viewpoints, from his own viewpoint. This comes to include the split second as he feels the impact of the bullet, but then in a nice touch is extended for a final few paragraphs after that. For the length of the book we think we are reading the biography of the surviving brother, but at the end we discover that really we are reading the biography of the dead brother, and the flow of family ties, making and breaking, are a series of ripples spreading out directly as actions of his life and death. Even the final letter from his daughter offering possiblity of eventual meeting between his wife and granddaughter is an action flowing as a result of a line of actions coming from this man's tumultuous and short life. A difficult book for me to read in parts, as it deals with estrangement between parent and child. (Paraphrase) a parent's greatest shame is to leave for dead a child who is still living. I was swept up in the emotion of the central part of the book: the mostly homely and least dramatic part, but then I have always gone for that. I particularly like the final change of direction, the return to the death of the brother and the realisation, which came for me only at the very end, of exactly whose life history I had been reading for the past 250 pages. Perhaps the most momentous estrangement of all was that of the less adventurous brother in making the move to the US. Of all the break ups in the book, this is the only one where the breakee has an opportunity to address, and his brother says to him, "Don't go." There are real depths to the forming and breaking of relationships over the generations displayed here.

2016: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

A novel nicely told, in Levy's rather nice and poetic style. But clever wordsmithing goes only some way towards making up for a lack of narrative and some lack of character. It is another pretty miserable tale of a child living a blinkered and selfish life wrapped up in the life of the parent. In this way the novel has much in common with Eileen, above.

The child worries about the angst of existence, without at any time coming to the conclusion that hard work and good food and sleep and not filling up head with nonsense might work. This angst takes up the entire narrative, and nothing else happens in the book.

I have read in an external review that the theme of this Booker Prize shortlist is main characters who at no point engage the empathy of the reader. The panel hotly denied this, but having read 4 out of 6 I agree completely. I have empathy for none, and only got engaged with the triple murderer of Burnet. Sigh.

2015: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Meandering internal monologue with neither narrative structure nor characterisation. My father taught me that if you cannot say something good about something better to say nothing at all. So I shall stop there.

2017: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

I'm afraid that this is not going to be a good review, despite critical acclaim elsewhere for this book. The book is famously written in a single sentence, and when I read that I determined not to bother and hope it didn't make the Booker shortlist. But then I saw that a book on the longlist was published by Canongate, and I forgot it was this one, and bought it. Humph. The single sentence thing really just turns it into a stream of consciousness thing, except that the lines of thought are generally completed and run for 3-4 paragraphs each instead of just flashing moments. It is still just an internal monologue and by page 26 there were just glimpses of a narrative coming together in pieces, and no characterisation at all, and no dialogue at all. I put it down at this point and have not picked it up again yet.

2017: Reservoir 13 by John McGregor

Another fantastic Booker long listed book for this year. It is written with no separate paragraphs. I seldom go for this sort of thing, but in this case I think that the narrative style justifies this very slight gimmick, and the author gets away with it.

The story focuses on village life and characters in the days, months and years following a disturbing disappearance of a young teenager. The event itself is not given focus so much as the ripples of impact it has on the people who are affected not directly, but through proximity. The narrative has a bit of the feel of a soap opera high level summary, as it rattles through births and deaths and illnesses and relationships making and breaking, giving a steady 25 pages to each year. As it goes through at this pace the reader is taken through major life events at pace, but the author dips down into significant events when appropriate and gives enough small detail to fill out the characters involved, before jumping back on the steam train of ongoing narrative. Human life is interspaced with the natural cycles around the village. This gives a feel of timeless flow and natural cycle of life to it all, and also presents human relationships at the same level as animal relationships.

A story written with superb pacing of the narrative, which flows past at a rapid rate, but just stops for long enough at the right moments to bring in the humanity of the characters, before rattling away again at a quick pace. This was a difficult trick to pull off and it is great writing to do it so well.

Reviews say that this is not a thriller, but I think that is only half true. The author pulls in just enough detail around the disappearance to tie the reader in, and is not above dropping in a bit of Agatha Christie here or there to tighten these connections. Discarded bits of clothing and a school janitor with a boilerhouse. The author might claim not to focus the text on the mystery, but he knows full well that the reader will be picking at these tiny details with intensity, and the thrill becomes a reader led thing, which is very effective.

Ultimately the author chooses, wisely I think, not to round out with a solution, but just to follow life as it goes, while the ripples of impact soften and widen out and eventually subside. A fantastic work, which I read in 2 days flat, thrilled all the way along.

2016: The North Water by Ian McGuire

If your elderly, maiden aunt takes to her ottoman with a fit of the vapours, and the call goes out to you, as a devoted nephew, to take a book and read to her, to calm her frayed nerves and soften her ragged feelings, then this is probably not the book to read. This is a tale of a ragged, dirty, cussed, whore-mongering, foul-mouthed, foul-tempered, violent group of sailors on a whaleboat in the Northern Oceans, and the author uses language very much to tell it as it is.

The tale is well-enough told to be a work of literature, but is also an unashamed thriller, and at times the hero escapes various perils through Richard Hannay-esque miraculous circumstances. There is no reason, of course, why a book cannot be both, and indeed many would argue the The 39 Steps itself is exactly an example of something that is, but it is still a difficult act to pull off. At the first peril I was initially seriously impressed that the author had killed off the hero at such a critical point, giving a Psycho twist to the narrative, but that was not to be. At one point a psychic sailor has a dream foretelling how the voyage ends, and the dream ends up coming true, which is an even harder act to pull off effectively in a work of literature.

Ultimately, the hero outlives all of his fellow sailors, even the very violent, difficult to kill off one, and the reader is left to ponder what this all means. Thrilled, yes; sickened by the gore, certainly; abominated at the depravity, indeed. Should we draw a lesson from all of this, or is the thrill of the ride enough in itself? Is this book we have just read a literary thriller or a thrilling work of literature?

I'm inclined to the former, which means that it shouldn't win this award, although I devoured the final 30% or so of the novel with greater avidity than any of the above 3. And I never have quite understood the logic of that difference.

2016: The Many by Will Menmuir

I've waited a week or so to write this review, as this tale swirls around inside me. I think this is an extremely good book, one of the best and most original I have read in some time, although with fully 85% of the book read, I still thought it was just a rather tiresome pastiche of outsider rejected by rural local community thing.

The tale is of an outsider setting up home in a rural local community. He buys the house previously owned by a popular, local lad, who died and/or disappeared, and he is rejected by the locals, in particular one lonely and aloof rural man. The rural town turns out to be isolated, in decline, with a toxic environment, and hemmed in through barriers set up by shadowy external forces. The tale is told in chapters alternating with the viewpoints of the urban man and the rural man. Towards the end of the book the external forces, and the toxicity, and the external barriers all start to loom unrealistically large, until reality starts to break down in a surreal way, and the reader is unbalanced and confused as to where this is going.

In a devasting late chapter it is revealed that the hero and his wife lost their son to a stillbirth. They cradled the stillborn infant in their arms, but could never meet the child. This, it turns out, is the never-seen previous owner of the house; and the whole narrative is not real life, but an increasingly destructive, stifling, toxic bad place into which the hero has fallen. The local man given focus throughout is, I think, an alternative self for the hero, the person he will become if he loses himself in this bad place and succumbs to his grief. At the end of the book the hero escapes, just, by a whisker, not by himself but only with the help of a therapist, and returns to his wife who has been calling him home. His alternative self dives into the toxic water and disappears.

I'm sure that my cod-analytical paragraph above does scant justice to the clever and inventive way in which this novel gives a depiction of grief and depression as a descent of this ordinary story into surreal madness. The core phrase, "Timothy, he is gone. He is gone Timothy." resonates within long after the book has been finished.

A seriously good book.

2016: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

I'm less impressed with this one I think. A dour wee thing, perhaps the reader is meant to build up sympathy with the heroine who tells the story in the first person, but I found her very much an anti-heroine: bitter, twisted, pathetic, slatternly and non-contributory to those in need around her, and so that certainly fell flat with me.

Eileen lives a dour life and is eventually pushed and pulled out of it, by self and circumstance, all ignited by the arrival of a chic and fashionable co-worker into her drab life. But then in the tumultuous final chapter, this co-worker, supposedly a sophisticated professional as a foil to the unsophisticated anti-heroine, commits an unusual act of kidnap, and the story verges off to focus on the tragic story of an abused child who commits an abuse-driven murder. This dilutes the effect of the narrative. By having secondary characters commit exceptional acts, the novel can no longer focus on the life changes of the lead character, but becomes instead, or perhaps also, a story around this event. Is the point of the novel to focus on these bizarre and exceptional acts?, or is it to focus on the drab life of the anti-heroine and her lurch up and out of it?

I am left unsure, and I am not sure I care.

Added later: in an interview with the author I read that she wanted to write a novel featuring the events of the abused child and the murder and subsequent incarceration. She was unable to create a narrative in which this was a central event, and ended up creating this narrative in which it was an indirect influence on the seemingly main narrative. I thought this was fascinating and made me want to reassess the novel. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that this interview can then change the review of the novel. How can it? I wonder if all of that changes if the author had added, perhaps, a shadowy prologue featuring the actual crime. This would have centralised the event, even though it did not enter the narrative until the ending.

2017: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

A great piece of human interest here, with a new writer with really basic beginnings getting a book published and then having the amazing experience of having it picked up by the booker panel. What a story!

Judged by fair criteria for a new novel it is pretty good. A mix of modern day setting and something rather medieval going on, with a young narrator. Rather nice poetic writing in parts, and a social concience, even if it is layered on with a trowel in some parts.

However, judged by Booker long list criteria I'm afraid it falls a bit short, and I don't think it really reflects well on the panel that it is included. The narrative has logical holes, both in the storyline and in the grasp of realisation that the narrator presents, which varies. The social and environmental traits of the characters are sometimes trowelled on unrealistically. While the descriptive detail is often nicely put, it is sometimes inserted at the wrong point, slowing down the timeflow of the narrative just when that seems inappropriate. I found that in doing this it dragged the reader out of immersion in the story.

The story is set in the modern day, but certain elements of the plot don't work in that setting, so I suppose it must be a setting of a medieval plot in a modern setting, or something. Whatever it was, I'm afraid that I did not really get it.

A violent ending gave it all a dour outlook and ending, but the violence felt a bit gratuitous to me, perhaps because I had not been fully engaged in the plot in the first place.

Quite a good first book, but not really Booker quality.

2014: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Phew. Opens with a gruesome depiction of violence and ends with a gruesome depiction of violence and doesn't really cheer up much in the middle. This story contrasts different lives in India in the late 60s and 70s. The main story tells the life of several generations of an upper middle class family in Calcutta: business deals and marriages and births and heart attacks and crumbling of the family fortune, with narrative constantly hopping about the timeline, meaning that each generation keeps hopping about from childhood to youth to middle and old age and back again. Interleaved is the tale of the son who leaves to take up armed struggle in the Maoist cause in rural areas, told in a strict chronological timeline. The contrast in how the story flows along the timeline in the two alternating strands is striking.

Lots of change in style and time and characters, but the mood remains resolutely bleak. No one has a good time in this book. No one smiles. The futility of struggle against the corrupt and elitist central forces, either through middle class business or slave labour revolution, is remorselessly laid out. While the main family achieve comparative wealth for a couple of generations, all crumbles in the end. There is no shortage of violence and human misery, in both tales, to accompany.

Characterisation is OK, but it is a big cast of characters, and little compassion or joy to give breadth to any one of them. One challenge with writing a multi-generational blockbuster is consistency in description. The author cannot describe the grandfather as ceasely stentorian and strict on page 103, only to describe in some detail his tender relationship with his new son on page 267. I'm not convinced that the author quite achieves this, (the above example, although not the page numbers, is literal). One gets the feeling of a book where the writing perhaps took over the planned plot, which is fine in itself, but which was then never revisited and made consistent later.

Quite a good book, but resolutely bleak and downbeat. There is little cause for optimism here. I do hope for all our sakes that this is not chosen to be the literary message of the year.

2015: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

A classic tragedy around 4 brothers, a deadly prophesy, and the chaos it wrecks as it burns into their relationships. This is mixed up with the boys' troubled arrival of adolescence, and it remains unclear just what action is caused by what effect. Gripping, telling, fantastically written, and thrilling as it draws to a conclusion. The narrative follows a classic tragedy, but finally draws up just slightly from complete destruction and salvages something of the lives of the narrator and his closest sibling. The four brothers are characterised beautifully, their close relationship is pulled together, and each individual separation pulls at the heart of the reader: "What will happen to us [younger brothers] when our older brothers die?" "I could not imagine life without my brothers" "all my life they had looked after me" "don't leave me!" The funeral of Ikena is taut and heartbreaking, "he was the only one dressed in white, like an angel who had fallen to Earth and had his body broken so that he could not return to heaven." By avoiding the destruction of all and bringing the tragic events to a sort of an end the author enriches the tale and strengthens the overall narrative. Fantastic novel.

(all para quotes from memory)

A couple of days later and I think the book has increased its pull on me. One of the great achievements of the tale is to intermix Ikena's supposed descent into madness with his descent into adolescence. The story is mostly narrated by the youngest sibling, and the narrator is devasted when his older brother turns away from his siblings, defies their Mother, shows violence towards his closest brother. While the storyteller presents these changes in drastic language, the actual words spoken by Ikena, "I just don't want to, sorry Mother, please just leave me alone," are far less dramatic. It brings to the novel a mild sense of unreliable narration, and it remains unclear just how much of the terrible act was caused by Ikena's descent into madness, and how much by the younger siblings' inability to cope with the separation of close knit fraternity brought about by adolescence. After all, during the course of the novel 3 of the 4 brothers commit a murder. The only one not to is Ikena, the one who supposedly descended into madness. So what price this supposedness? Fantastic mixture of feeling.

2013: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Well, have to say I didn't enjoy this one much. Story of a Japenese schoolgirl with suicidal father and remarkable nun great-grandmother, told as a Canadian writer reads her diary. The book has quantum physics overtones, with storylines one side of the Pacific, at one time, not settling themselves until observed by the reader distant in both time and space. Schrodinger the cat makes an appearance, and at one point is in a box, hovering between life and death. Hard to gain much empathy with the Japanese heroine, lots of casual violence and bullying are in the story. School bullying reminiscent of Faulks' Engelby, but I thought less central to core story. Some horrific war crimes alluded to in unecessary detail, all created distance between reader and story. Everything ties up into a happy ending at the end, which is nice, and the cat survives you will be pleased to hear, but I thought tying all the threads detracted from the realism of the story. Contrast this with Grace' Harvest which ties very few threads and produces a stronger narrative as a result. I thought a more forceful and less cosy ending upon observation would have been better. Forcing the ending of the story while the cat remained in the box, hovering between states, its fate left open would have been a better metaphor. And I thought the use of dreams to tell parts of the story, and the use of the Canadian writer, an image of the real author,  as storyteller, were both tired plot devices. Still, what do I know? :)

2015: Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Excellent story of a group of illegal immigrants from India living and trying to find work in the UK, mostly with strong requirements to get money to send back to family in India. The story focuses on 4 of these, but then in a series of substories goes back in time and gives us the background stories which are varied, some are heartbreaking, which has the effect of humanising these people and having the reader sympathise with them. Our preconceptions on illegal immigration, perhaps very strong as it is such a big issue across Europe at the moment, are challenged. In the second half of the book the story develops as the season changes, and the ongoing challenges of living in difficult and challenging conditions intensify, the interrelationships between our 4 heroes intensify, and the risk of not having money to send back, and the subsequent consequences, all intensify.

Unfortunately, having brought all of these issues to the boil, Sahota then sugarcoats the ending and has all of our heroes winning through. Its not often I criticise a Booker shortlist book for being too nice - its not often I get the opportunity - but this book suffers at the end for this. It is reminiscent of a plot device used by Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit when he bring a family to the edge of starvation and disaster and leaves them there in the middle of the novel, only to produce them in the final chapter and say everything worked out fine in the end. I'm pleased for the fictional characters, but the moral of this strand of the plot falls a wee bit flat. Sahota brings us up to terrifying climaxes, as Randeev nearly kills his housemate in desperate self defence, and Tochi has all of his money - everything that he has produced for the whole of the book - stolen from him. Both of these events should be huge life changing and plot changing crashes, but in fact both turn out just fine and it is OK.

A good book, strong book, well told and gripping. But an opportunity missed to draw out the misery and horror of the situation by seeing the tragedy through to the bitter end. In Morpurgo's Private Peaceful we know at the beginning that one brother makes it and one doesn't, but don't know until the very end which is which. Now that is a plot device that would have worked a treat here.

2017: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This book is well written by a good writer, which is by no means true of all on the 2017 Booker short list.

A strange book in many ways, this tells the story of a group of people stuck in purgatory, hanging around the cemetery where they have been buried. They cannot move on because they still obsess over some earthly thing, a lost love or some property they owned. A child dies and the father returns to the mausoleum to grieve over the child's body and this device creates a crisis point for the various inmates, many of whom take this as a cue to stop obsessing and move onto the proper afterlife. In one strand of the story we see a vision of the entrance to the afterlife, a real Dante vision of a great judgement with a blissful heaven and a vile hell awaiting.

The author decides to make the child and father the figures of Abraham Lincoln and his son. Does he mean by this that royalty are more finely sensed and feel grief and the finer feelings more than ordinary people do? I guess he would baulk at this rhetorical question, but if he does not think this then....what are the reasons for making these characters American royalty?

The book is told in a series of statements by the main characters, with no external narration of scene. This makes it unusual for a novel, although of course this is less unusual for a play.

The earthly obsessions are disappointingly mundane. One lady is there because she is loth to leave her daughters whom she feels still need her care, which is a positive reason. But the other characters hang around for trivial stuff, some with cartoonish physical characteristics to indicate their obsession.

It is beautifully written, well paced, consistent. I felt some of the devices were a bit inconsistent, and consequently found it hard to identify a single theme that the author wanted to put across. Disappointed at the use of royalty to put across a point. I found the Dante stuff a bit strange in the context of a modern novel. I guess this was used to make the literal story more cartoonish and so increase focus on the metaphorical story.

I found the overall narrative good, but a bit lacking in engaging a single direction or a single point of empathy for me. Pace and characterisation and flow were all very good. A good and rather strange book.

2017: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A disturbing story which travels to the centre of the IS dictatorship with a recruit, and then gets into the mind of him and his twin sister and other family members to try and recover the situation. The story really revolves more around the desperation of the twin at home and the unlikely coupling of her with the son of the Home Secretary in a strange plot as she tries to get hold of strings to pull.

The narrative is gripping, and the characterisation is good, but the plot is all far fetched and having put characters in certain situations, the author is then really hard pressed to elicit softer feelings for some of them. It is a pity in a way, because I think the story telling would be really good around a better story. Something less earth shattering, which creates more mixed emotions to twist characters around. And don't make senior executives central characters, they are too hard to get right.

I'm happy to give the author another go, but perhaps a more local plot will show it all off to better effect.

2017: Autumn by Ali Smith

Well, a great and exciting ride through the vagaries of life, as I come to expect of Ali Smith. I am a veteran now, having read two of her novels! This is a book so lacking in the terrible atrocities of the worst of human existence, that seems to draw other booker authors like honey draws bears. In this book an older narrator looks back at her coming of age years and her close relationship with a much older man. This man shared a philosophy of life with her that was optimistic, quirky, challenging and symathetic to the young girl's own feelings.

Characters in the novel are all grounded and real and normal and open to others and all try to seek out the best in life. The book takes a few shots at aspects of modern life, such as post office queues. Although generally first person narrated, in addition we gain some insight into the older man's final dreams and meandering conciousness as he nears death.

While it is an enjoyable and positive read amongst the debris of other booker novels, we are left questioning what we get from it all. Is this quirky philosophy really much more than just parlour games of an elderly neighbour to amuse the child next door? Is the post office queue bit not just a cliched bit of stand up comedy? Surely it is only in bad film scores that characters play this verbal oneupmanship, each trying to produce a witty closing line to the conversation thus far, not in real life. Where exactly is the narrative, the beginning, middle and end that I was told about in English at school.

And also, where does autumn come in? This must be important because this book is apparently the first in a quartet named after the four seasons. Perhaps this tells the story of the autumn of this man's life. If not, then I'm not sure why it is named this.

So an enjoyable and light read, but didn't really strike much deeper with me.

2014: How to be Both by Ali Smith

At last!, a 2014 Booker book which is joyful and happy and a pleasure to read. A single novel split in two at the very middle: the first part is a part life story of a teenage girl coping with Mother's death, the second part that of a Middle Ages painter dragged back from mouldering in the Earth to view and commentate on this same teenage girl.

The change of direction caught me completely by surprise, and suddenly interrupts the prose text with two pages of poetry: full of life and movement as the painter experiences the rushing sensation of, literally, being dragged back through the Earth and out into the World. A fantastic rush of adrenaline into the novel which captures and enwraps the reader.

For me, only with this second half were the full themes of the novel brought out, as it turns out the painter is female, dressing, acting and living as a man in order to train and work in their career in their time and world. This brought out the full theme and message of understanding the respect places of men and women in this age, as transposed alongside the same theme so obviously present in a different age.

An optimistic and happy book, the reader experiences some sad moments in this girl's life, but travels through into better places. The rush in the middle is wonderful writing, which captures and expresses a zest for life so wonderfully.

Stop Press: and so the plot thickens. Now I read in a newspaper review that this book has been given separate print runs, each with the two halves of this tale in a different order, the book I bought presented these two halves in essentially a random order. So I read the second part as bringing out fully the theme of the story as a whole, but then perhaps I might have said the same thing if I had bought the other version of the book. Perhaps the other way round the second half would have explained and given life to themes from the first. Certainly I viewed the striking 2 page poetic description of the painter rushing out from the mouldering Earth into life as being an injection of adrenaline which brought increased vitality into the book, and of course that would not have happened the other way round. Perhaps it would have been an explosive start instead. Who knows? Well, come to think of it, half the readers of this book do.

2016: All That Man Is by David Szalay

Disappointed, I thought this was a rather poor and miserable read. Firstly, it is not a novel but a serious of short stories, and so I am surprised that it was considered at all. Oh yes, all right, the short stories had a common theme and a chronological order, but that in itself does not make it into a novel, and I am disappointed in those that claim it does. There is no continuity of narrative nor characterisation, and so no significant change or effect wrought in characterisation by events in the narrative. Is that not rather the point of a novel?

9 short stories depicted the nine ages of man, from late teenager to a immaturely aged 70yo. A pretty miserable depication it is too, wrapped up in sexual conquest (invariably inadequate), pursuit of wealth (invariably inadequate) pursuit of power (inadequate and fleeting) and ultimately pursuit of life (fleeting and temporary). There is no space in these stories for love, children, artistic achievement or anything nice or positive.

A hard series of tales, with nothing to contrast with the bleak and unhappy pursuit of inadequate, fleeting and temporary goals. A less kind critic could use exactly those adjectives to describe the work itself.

2013: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Remarkably, for such a short book, the real value of this work is in the opening 10 pages and closing 10 pages. The 80 pages in the middle is more a retelling of a well known story. This is done vividly, and the point of view is very off-centre and the miracles are presented as second hand tales, talked up, which allows both for a practical recounting of the tale while simultaneously shrouding in mystery, but none of this is original of course. It is the opening and closing lines which pull in the reader. These present the mother in shocked perpetual mourning for the son. Paraphrase - my body is full of memories as well as blood and bones. At the end she wishes in her decreptitude that she could return to before: to before the events of his life, to before his danger, even to before his adulthood, and cradle once more her child. This is powerful and emotive writing, which presents age and motherhood and mourning in a vivid and gripping light. These best parts are very good, but that they are so short highlight even more strongly the length of this book. Can one present a Booker Prize for 20 pages of superb writing?

2015: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

OK, OK, I concede, I do think this is a really good book. It took a while to sink in for me. The opening 2/3 is well-written, but quiet and homely; internal looking; focusing on fairly ordinary family relationships. It is good enough, but not really something to challenge your perceptions or tug at your heartstrings. The storyline sets up a family, sets up the family history, and the relationships between the older and younger generations. The family member most closely described is the most itinerant, most absent, least reliable, with seemingly most fragile family ties. Central to all of the action is the family home. This part ends in tragedy, as the Matriach is killed in a car crash and all need to reassess where they sit in the new family structure.

With the final 1/3 however, the author has a neat trick of revisiting ancient tales of family history through the eyes of those taking part, and we gain a new perspective. Both couplings of parents and grandparents are revisited, and while family legend has these great events as predestined and firmly set, we see that at the time they were just arbitrary events, blown by the winds of chance. Both couplings were set up by the women, with one willing and one unwilling partner, and both only took place because random acts and decisions fell into place.

As the scene with the varnished or blue porch swing comes to its climax we are on tenderhooks. What will it be? Varnished or blue? Is this comedy or tragedy that we are reading? Even with all of the tension leading up to the final scene, Tyler still manages to surprise us with where it goes.

As the present family members reaffirm relationships and separate out once more, upon the sale of the family home, the story ends with a surprising final couple of paragraphs. Burns or Keats-like suddenly we are given a view of misery and desperation, as if it is all pointless and all life is dust anyway. This threw me for a bit, but I think the author is giving us insight that separation from family always gives us misery and despair, regardless of whether this separation is tragic or self-induced.

The story focuses on family ties, superficially to a building, but more strongly to each other, across different people and different bonds; across events of random chance and events long planned; across those that love each other and those that fight. In the end it is always family, family, which gives us purpose when we are togther and plunges us into despair when we are apart.

Beautifully told, very readable and attention grabbing.

2017: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Oh, what a fantastic, fantastic book. This year's Pulitzer Prize winner still manages to exceed expectations. Beyond all its moral outrage and history and fantastic realisation of the railroad, and the thrill of the ride, it is in addition beautifully written. I might plough miserably through a few bad books and stream of conciousness stuff in chasing through competition shortlists, but they are all worth it for the life changing experience of reading a book as fantastic as this.

A story told in a series of 6 acts, each set in a different southern state, tracing the escape route of an escaped slave, each giving a background of a distinctly different attititude and social structure to how slavery is managed. All actions of both the lead character and those that try to capture her have been indelibly influenced by the actions of her mother, who abandoned her and escaped never to be caught or seen again, back in the scene setting beginning.

The sheer cruelty of chapter one is not repeated, but nevertheless ties the reader to a never fading fear that the lead character might be returned to such atrocities.

The escape route of the Underground Railroad is given a mythical and literal portrayal as an actual railroad, with steam trains and lines and stations and drivers and guards. This is well presented and the author manages to capture the grand scale of such a mythology without losing the terrible grounding in the awful realism of the novel's setting.

At one point the hero discovers the word, "optimistic," but is confused because neither she nor any other ex-slaves know what the word means.

As the tale continues the battle between the escaped slave and slave-capturer becomes personal and perhaps goes one leg beyond the realistic, moving from literature to thriller. But equally this final leg becomes almost fantastical anyway, as the final clinch between the two becomes symbolic of everything, and the final appearance of the actual railroad becomes more fantastical and more like an ethereal road to heaven at the same time.

In a devastating final very short chapter the author revisits the original escape of the hero's mother. This character travels for only an hour, lies in open ground and savours freedom, then starts to return to her daughter, whom she never could abandon. On the return she is bitten by a snake and dies, body becoming lost in the swamp. The author takes a liberty in presenting her internal thoughts so late in the story, but the effect is stunning. Throughout the book all these lives have taken their course, influenced by a parent's desertion of child, by the child fighting to survive with no mentor, by the slave owner's rage against a successful escape, by the child following what might have been the same railroad escape route, and yet all this influence was misplaced.

Throughout it all there is not a line out of place, not a single badly described scene or thought. Writing is magnificent, the reader is absorbed throughout. The balance of realism and myth works wonders. The early extreme violence serves to set the reader's nerves just where the author wants them. It is not repeated, although the terrible cheapness of life in this setting is demonstrated repeatedly. It is all just so well done. A fantastic book.

I wrote separately about my disgust in this book not being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Ridiculous decision which cheapened the Booker Prize to some ridiculous Turner Prize event.

2014: History of the Rain by Niall Williams

An Irish girl, bed ridden, tells the story of her father, through his father, and through the huge and miscellaneous collection of books that he bequeathed her. These relatives lived unusual and chaotic lives in unusual and chaotic houses in Ireland. Family history full of characters. There is even the obligatory chapter of Irish history right back to the primaeval, part based on evolutionary science and part on Irish folklore.

It is a good and well told history, but I couldn't really love the story. Perhaps because I had just read something very similar from Jane Urquart a week or two previously. Well told though, with a well produced ending. But, but, but.....

Och the language. The phraseology. This was such a highlight. Beautifully told, with an exquisite touch, rising to the sublime. Williams does what Wodehouse can do: totally disrupt the flow of the reader with a single phrase so beautifully crafted that one has to stay and savour, and cannot let pass.

This adds such a personal touch and tragedy to the key points of the story, and raises a good tale into a great novel. This one didn't make it to the shortlist. Pity, because I would have chosen it in front of at least 3 shortlisted books, probably more.

2017: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

This is quite a good book, but I cannot say that it really grabbed me, and indeed writing this 2-3 weeks after reading it I am struggling to remember the main themes. The story is that of a man desolate in lonliness as he tries to work and eat and function in the years after the death of his wife. As the story expands it drifts more and more into flashback, and one discovers that in his early life he had one very close male friend, and he dallied with a love affair here before meeting his wife. In fact his mariage became a bit of a threesome with hero, wife and friend forming a close alliance. And the death when it happened was of both wife and friend in the same car crash.

The study of grief and lonliness is acute, and the setting of this life in a working mans environment works also. I found the special relationship had little empathy for me, and I found that it all got in the way of the close story, but perhaps that is just a personal thing.

I found it all quite good, quite emotive, quite readable.

2015: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The 2015 Booker hot favourite, weighing in at an impressive 725+ pages, this was a monster that had spent 3 weeks glowering at me from across the library. In the end I read about 1/3 of it, but did not finish, and I'm sure that I won't (maybe, if it wins, maybe....). Readable and well written, once I was into it I got through pages OK, but the story is pretty intense and unappealing. Starting off telling the tale of 4 young men trying to make it in different fields in New York, it quickly focuses in on one. This person had an abusive childhood, echoes of which (more than echoes really, including physical infirmaties) haunt his burgeoning adulthood. As his path and career develop he is surrounded by friends and surrogates who love him and care for him, but his past haunts every relationship. As the tale develops, his past is peeled back, piecemeal, and becomes ever more horrific, and his adult support group become ever more loving, to a point which passes realism. Tear jerking in parts, I kept waiting for the tale to expand and offer different perspectives, but instead it spiralled ever inward, and reviews I read independently assure that it does that for the full 725+. I never actually decided to stop reading, but as the countdown to the end of the 28 days came, and available hours to read disappeared, I just never picked it up again.

Well written, but a terribly inward looking tale which is tear jerking at times, but also unrealistic. Although this has the effect of highlighting the extreme differences between this poor person's childhood and adulthood, I expect more than this from a 700 page novel. Some reviews remarkably negative considering its continued favouritism. I guess I read so many reviews struggling to find a way into the rest of this book.