Category Archives: Not The Booker Prize

Not The Booker Prize Shortlist 2016

I may be in another country, however one piece of book based news I was keeping my beady bookish eyes on was the announcement for the Not The Booker Prize shortlist 2016 yesterday. I love the Booker as many of you will know, I am also deeply fond of it’s slightly rebellious relation (well not relation but you know what I mean) and was thrilled to judge it a few years ago when the Not The Booker opened itself up for a jury of judges. It was such fun taking part and I loved the bookish chats, I have also remained friends with some of the lovely folk that I judged with. So after having been torn for choice by the longlist I voted for two titles (there were many, many I could have voted for) an waited with baited breath by the pool in our villa. Here are the shortlisted titles…

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  • Walking the Lights – Deborah Andrews (Freight Books)
  • The Combinations – Louis Armand (Equus)
  • What Will Remain – Dan Clements (Silvertail)
  • The Summer That Melted Everything – Tiffany McDaniel (Scribe)
  • The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote – Dan Micklethwaite (Bluemoose Books)
  • Chains of Sand – Jemma Wayne (Legend Press)

Here I have some shamefaced admittance (is that a word?) I have not heard of many of the six that have been shortlisted, in fact I have only heard of two of them. Tiffany McDaniel because I was sent it ages ago as the publisher said it would be right up my street, and admittedly it looks it, and Jemma Wayne as she was longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize a few years ago. This though, for me, is exciting. I love hearing about books that I have no knowledge of (I loved this when I discovered what the Man Booker longlist was, I love it with every prize). It is also good as there are a lot of independent publishers on the list and you know how I love those.

The list has set me off on a journey discovering more about them all and I have to say this does sound like a really interesting bunch which I might have to get a wriggle on and read. You have something massive, and slightly scary sounding with the Armand. A modern fairytale with heaps of bookish nods in the Micklethwaite, which by the sounds of it has the potential to be one of my books of the year. A tale of theatre and the young, drunk and messy, life of an actor with the Andrews. A small town distraught by the arrival of a young boy who could be the devil in McDaniel’s, which is one of the books I have been most excited about this summer and have for the bank holiday next week. And two novels of looking at war and conflict, and all that comes with those, with Wayne and Clements. I just need to get my hands on them…

Have you read any of the list? What do you make of it?

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Shame – Melanie Finn

Whilst people are off reading the Man Booker longlist, I have decided to be slightly different and give both the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist and Not The Booker shortlist a whirl as the variety that they both provide really interests me. Shame is up for the latter, where it could win the author’s Holy Grail that is The Guardian Mug, and if it is a sign of all the reading ahead then I am in for some unusual and thought provoking treats over the next month or so.

Orion Publishing, 2015, hardback, fiction, 308 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Pilgrim Jones is having a pretty horrendous time of it. The first of the awful things to happen to her, we learn, is that her husband has left her for a younger woman they met on a social weekend all together with mutual friends. She is, as the book opens, now in Tanzania after picking the first flight she could to leave the broken home they had created in the Swiss village of Arnau before ditching her fellow safari goers half way through a trip in Magulu. However, it soon becomes clear that this is no holiday of respite; Pilgrim is running away from something far worse, an accident that left three children dead. Yet as Pilgrim seeks escape the past and try to deal with it, it seems her past is coming looking for her.

But they are without shame. Like animals. Do you see? You maybe feel shame for them, but they do not feel shame for themselves.

For the first third of the book Shame reads like a compelling thriller. We move forward with Pilgrim as she gets to know the people of Magulu, such as Dr Dorothea and PC Kessy as well as the mysterious and pretty skin crawling inducing Martin Martins. We also begin to learn of the people of Africa’s superstitions which come to the fore when a box of albino body parts, deemed to be a curse, are left in the village not long after Pilgrim and Martin’s arrivals. Whilst all this is going on we are also going backwards to Switzerland and learning of the ripples immediately after Pilgrim’s divorce and the accident that labels her kindermörderin, child killer and the detective who investigates it, Strebel. Then about 100 pages in Pilgrim suddenly decides to leave, on a whim, and head elsewhere. Fate seemingly intervenes and suddenly she is in Tanga where she meets fellow ex-Americans Gloria and Harry and things take a surreal turn before just after half way Finn turns the book completely on its head, and I mean completely.

It is a huge gamble that Finn takes here as, without giving anything away, she shifts the book completely out of Pilgrim’s perspective and narrative and then takes it into some of the characters that she has met along the way. We are dropped by one character and then suddenly scooped up by another. It also gives the book a huge plot twist/reveal that I did not see coming from any direction. Readers will be completely intrigued; completely enraged by it or like me somewhere in the middle, as it both baffled me and completely thrilled me. I just couldn’t not read on.

I think, again without any spoilers, that the reason Finn does this is to highlight the two biggest themes of the book and no I am not talking about shame. I am talking about redemption vs. revenge and the stories we tell others vs. the stories we tell ourselves. Whilst shame is a huge theme in the book, as the title would suggest and as pretty much every single character feels shame (for what they have done, didn’t do, can’t do or won’t do) in some way I actually think it is the other topics that have their roots the deepest in this novel. Each character has an image they put forward that is very different to the one underneath their skin whatever their colour or whatever their background. They have secrets or problems they are shamed by in some way which they tell little lies and stories to cover up. Can they redeem themselves? Can they live with themselves? Can they even scores? All these things are looked at in Shame.

I do have to admit I had a few wobbles with Shame on and off which I think are worth highlighting before I recommend you all to read it, which I do. Occasionally there seems to be a lot of sudden reaction without motivation. For example Pilgrim’s sudden decision to leave Magulu and how she suddenly ends up in Tanga, which whilst I got it at the end seemed very confusing and broke the pace for the novel with me for a while before I was hooked again. I also felt that this happened with the sudden arrival of the albino body parts. Whilst I found the African magical elements/beliefs really interesting and occasionally grimly fascinating sometimes I felt it both strengthened and weakened the plot. Instead of adding darkness or a threatening presence, which I think was the intention, it added occasional confusion or diverted your eye away from its intent. These were by no means fatal flaws and I should add. Africa is described wonderfully in this book, with its mystery, oppressive heat, cultural ways and brooding landscape it becomes a character and presence all of its own.

Kessy smiles. ‘Imagine someone hates you this much? What have you done to him? Perhaps in your heart you know you are guilty. And this magic speaks to your heart.’
A sensation comes over me, as if something is moving underneath my skin, one of those terrible worms that beds down in your flesh.

Shame is a compulsive, fascinating, perplexing and disorientating one which keeps you in its thrall. It is a book that plays with storytelling, genre and expectations. It also looks at the way we perceive ourselves and others as well as how they perceive us, which changes from person to person, emotion to emotion. It is brilliantly written, quirky and plays with the reader as it goes along. Most interestingly it is a book that is about revenge vs. redemption, right up until the very last line. You’ll be left pondering what should be the most fitting outcome for all the characters, potentially feeling some shame yourself as to what fate you decide to leave them too.

Who else has read Shame and what did you make of it? It is one of those books I am desperate to talk about now I have finished it, so do let me know if you have. I am going to have to hunt down her debut novel Away From You at some point which is another novel about Africa too and was longlisted for both the Orange and IMPAC prizes. I am certainly looking forward to what she writes next. Next up from the Not The Booker shortlist I will be reading The Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon, which keeps making me think of my new (belated, last to the party – I know, I know) favourite show Parks and Recreation.

Note – I have just gone off to read some other reviews of Shame, as I do only after I review, and it seems that myself and the lovely Naomi of The Writes of Woman have blog snap as she has written about Shame today too.

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Filed under Melanie Finn, Not The Booker Prize, Orion Publishing, Review, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Not The Booker 2015

I am back online, and just in time as the Not The Booker shortlist has been announced which I have been very excited about for the last week. Yes, you heard me right ‘Not’ The Booker. If you haven’t heard of it before it is an annual prize that The Guardian run around Man Booker Longlist time, the difference is that book lovers get to vote which I think makes it all the more exciting, and in past years all the more controversial as I discovered when I joined in and then judged back in 2013. This year people nominated a 70 strong longlist, which if you want a list of corking sounding books then do go have a look. Now almost 1,000 people have voted on which books go through (voting for two books the books with the most votes go through, sounds simple never quite is) and the shortlist of six books has been announced – and I am going to read them all. Oh yes, here they are…

  • Shame – Melanie Finn
  • The Artificial Anatomy of Parks – Kat Gordon
  • Fishnet – Kirstin Innes
  • Things We Have in Common – Tasha Kavanagh
  • Dark Star – Oliver Langmead
  • The Good Son – Paul McVeigh

I am very excited for two reasons. The first is that I nominated The Good Son in the first round as I was just at the end of it and think it is an utterly marvellous debut novel that cleverly deals with the recent violent history in Northern Ireland through a wonderful young (and not precocious, amazing) narrator who I will remember for a very long time – it got through, I am thrilled. Secondly just look at that list, isn’t it brilliant. Firstly these are six (almost) new to me books (I knew McVeigh’s as I voted for it, I also have the Kavanagh on the shelves) as well as six (almost) new to me authors. This is exactly what I loved about judging Fiction Uncovered and ticks many of my ‘reading outside the box’ boxes. Yes, there is an irony to those boxes, anyway…

It is a real mix of books. There are tales of Africa, surburban thrillers, science fiction, tales of escorts and prostitution, family dramas and tales of the IRA in Ireland, there is also a really interesting sway towards debut novels and independent publishers. It is a list that I find really exciting, so I have already been and bought two (no, not on that awful river based site) and Kat Gordon and Oliver Langmead will be in the post shortly. Finn’s editor has already tweeted me and is winging a copy of that over which will be the first book to be discussed around the 17th of August. So I thought I would let you know in case you wanted to join in with the fun.

Anyone else joining in? Have you read any of these books and if so what did you make of them?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Not The Booker Prize, Random Savidgeness

Anywhere’s Better Than Here – Zoe Venditozzi

Something I often think about is how many books there are that go under the radar every year and how can we rectify this? See, I do have deep moments, here I should mention that I spent 30 minutes wondering what might happen if gravity suddenly failed the other morning, deep indeed. We have great initiatives for neglected classics like Persephone, Text Classics or Virago but for modern novels, bar favourite of mine Fiction Uncovered, there isn’t much. I have been mulling how as a blogger I can do anything, I am still mulling it. The book that has set off this mulling has been Zoe Venditozzi’s debut novel Anywhere’s Better Than Here, which had I not been reading for the Not The Booker Prize, which it won from the public vote of before we pesky judges stepped in, might have passed me by which would have been a proper shame.

Laurie is stuck in a rut. She is working for a call centre which bores her but not as much as her takeaway loving boyfriend, Ed, who barely likes to leave the house let alone his computer or the DVD player. Laurie has had enough and, possibly because of the grief after the death of her mother finally coming to the surface, she decides she needs to become a bit more daring. Her first steps are to not stay in and have a curry but to take herself out for a drink in a pub alone and this is when she meets Gerry, a hospital radio DJ, and things begin to change a little recklessly.

Sandstone Press, 2012, paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the start I was a big fan of Anywhere’s Better Than Here simply because of the writing. I think Venditozzi has a corking eye for capturing real lives and real observations, from page two describing pensioners as ‘the biscuit coloured brigade’ I found myself often thinking ‘oh I think that’ including when she is working out, with Jamie a young boy who comes into her life, how she would survive a sudden tsunami or zombie attack. These are things we all think about on occasion and Laurie felt very, very real to me – a big win. She also captures and ponders over some of the mundane aspects of our lives yet without the book ever feeling mundane, instead feeling very real and human. It is bleak yet there is a great sense of humour within it too, we all have mundane moments in our lives after all.

Oddly I also liked the fact that I liked Laurie despite the fact that I actually really disliked her on and off throughout.  Occasionally my morals would start kicking in, outraged initially at how she could start dating Gerry when she hadn’t ditched Ed, both playing the moral high ground without just cause. I thought she was behaving like a spoilt cow that needed to buck up her ideas. Yet with Venditozzi’s writing she gained depth, she was complex and whilst I couldn’t always sympathise with her, or like everything she did, I could understood why she was the way she was.

I felt the same with Gerry, who has his own dark past. Yet Gerry was also where I felt I wanted more of his character and the whole Post Traumatic Stress, it never quite hooked me and then with the reasons for his going into war, so I wanted a bit more. There was also the element of the novel, which I won’t spoil because I would like you all to give this a read at some point, where the book completely changes and becomes more of a road trip tale. Here the book wobbled for me ever so slightly, I wanted to say to Venditozzi ‘You don’t need to put anymore in this book, it has me, I am interested don’t add bells and whistles.’ Initially this change in setting and pace didn’t quite sit with me.  It went to a level of melodrama (saying that I could see why it happened sort of) that it didn’t need to have, it was a compelling read enough simply in its plot of lifes gritty normalities. Once I got over the (very slight) sulk I embraced the change, accepted the twist and got on with it.

I don’t want that to sound damning on the book though, as I mentioned above I really liked this book and am really pleased that it ended reading it. The only reason I was a little taken aback by the change is because when Venditozzi writes darkly and quietly, with her wonderful observant prose and bleak sense of humour, she is absolutely corking and that is when Anywhere’s Better Than Here really lives and breathes. It is also an unflinching look at grief, depression, how we can think we are coping when really we aren’t and how we find ourselves stuck in life’s ruts. I am very much looking forward to seeing what she does next, she is most definitely one to watch out for. Give it a whirl!

Who else has read Anywhere’s Better Than Here? What are your thoughts on how we, bloggers or broadsheets or just readers, can help find those books which go under the radar and frankly shouldn’t?

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Filed under Not The Booker Prize, Review, Sandstone Press, Zoe Venditozzi

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of those cult writers who I always think I would really, really like, I just have to read more of his books as so far the number of them that I have read is a little paltry. When it comes to authors of that stature, and being a relative ‘Neil-newbie’, it almost makes me feel fraudulent it write about his latest ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ – one of the most hyped/anticipated/buzzed about books of the year and one I read for the Not The Booker Prize. I am also rather nervous because whilst it is a book I really enjoyed reading, it is one that had a few niggles for me on occasional, let me explain (before all the Gaiman fans come and hunt me down for blasphemy)…

Headline Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ is a book about memory and imagination and how these develop or fade as we grow up. It is also a corking story about a young boy, who starts the novel as an old (and unnamed) man, and one particular summer in his childhood when he met Lettie Hempstock. As a young boy his life was quite mundane, he was a bit of a bookish loner, and his family were ‘getting by’. One day they take in a lodger, who runs over the kitten and then kills himself in his car – not a spoiler as this happens very near the start – and it is during this debacle that the young lad finds himself being looked after by Lettie and her mother and grandmother while the police sort everything out. It is at this point that something magical is introduced into his life (at one point quite literally) and it is also when the greatest darkness comes as a new lodger, Ursula Monkton, arrives to change everything for the worse, if she can.

You might roll your eyes at what I am about to write, or think ‘oh for goodness sake why tell us about this book’, but I have to admit all the fantastical elements of this book really didn’t gel so well for me. I really liked Ursula as a villain (though she did feel very similar to the Other Mother in ‘Coraline’ at times) yet I couldn’t conjure her as the tent/marquee/thing that we first meet. I liked the hunger birds very much but the whole worm thing (even though it was brilliantly squeamish) didn’t work for me either. I couldn’t quite get it to 100% form itself in my head. Most of all though I didn’t really get ‘the Ocean’ of the title, apart from just after the denouement when it was so needed – no spoilers – as I didn’t see the point to it overall yet it is the title feature. Also did anyone else understand why the suicide at the start leads to Ursula/the worm/tent appearing? I think I missed that, or maybe it just was there because it was there? So why do, after saying all that especially about the ocean, I then think people should read it? Well…

Firstly when Gaiman writes in the ‘real world’ the book is very emotive, reminiscent and nostalgic. The scene with the bath was actually quite upsetting, as was the whole scene with his dad and Ursula by the fireplace (for some reason that really, really unsettled me). Also the emotions of feeling adults don’t understand you, hating your siblings, feeling a disappointment to your parents was all fully evoked. There is also a certain horror to the book that the ‘younger you’ inside you will be really hit hard by. Interestingly these both involve the dad, one also involving the bath and the other involving Ursula and a wall and things that shouldn’t be seen. Both had a real impact with me and left me feeling quite uncomfortable and also incredibly moved and almost bruised, it is hard to explain.

Then there is also the element of the book that I loved the most; the fact it took me back to my childhood, and I thought that this was what Gaiman was setting out to do, give us as readers a serious case of nostalgia and the memory at the route as to why we love books. All the things that appealed to me most as Simon aged 31 were the things that would have appealed to me as Simon aged 11. I loved the Hempstock’s and could think of one of my Gran’s friends who I thought (and sometimes still do) was a real life good witch, and all those old ladies who had that wry smile and spoilt you who were probably only 50/60 but seemed about 110 years old. I also thought that Ursula Monkton, or anti-Poppins, was a fantastic character I would have loved to have had in many a books when I was a kid. That of course brings up the question is this book a book for adults, for children, both? Should it even matter?

Whilst I don’t think (and here I type almost wincing with fear) it is one of the very best books I have read all year, it was a true delight as it is one of those books that will remind you of your own imagination (which sounds silly but true) and how we must stretch it unquestioningly sometimes as we would when we were younger. This seemed the biggest message I got from the book, to look back at myself and how I felt at a time when anything and everything was possible and hold that memory now all these years later. It is a book that in looking at the narrators nostalgic memories makes you look at yours and I really, really liked it for that.

In ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ our narrator states ‘I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.’ I have found myself thinking about this a lot since I read the book as I wish that the older me could occasionally find the younger me and give myself over to the fantasy side a little more as maybe if I had, with the brilliance of Gaiman’s family drama in this novel and getting lost in the ‘beyond magical’ elements of the book, this would have been the perfect book for me. Which is of course the point of the book I think. One thing I do know for sure is that I must read more Gaiman. Should I head to ‘American Gods’ or ‘Neverwhere’ next? Or another of his titles entirely?

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Filed under Headline Review, Neil Gaiman, Not The Booker Prize, Review

The Trader of Saigon – Lucy Cruickshanks

I was going to start something new this week and do a mid-week selection of mini reviews, as I have realised that I have a mountain of books I have read this year and might not end up reviewing until 2014. The first of which was going to be some of the Not The Booker Prize shortlisted books. There need be no secret on my thoughts on these as it went live over the interweb last week. However, as on said day, I had dragged myself out of my sick bed to do that and so didn’t think I was as eloquent as I would have liked. So I thought I should give them each, maybe bar one, a review here and try and sound a little more compos mentis. Plus the Not The Booker helped me discover some great ‘new to me’ authors and I would like to pass some of them onto you. Starting with Lucy Cruickshanks…

Heron Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Trader of Saigon’ is a tale of three people all in Vietnam in the 1980’s shadow of post war. Phuc is a business man who has fallen on hard times and with a family to feed resorts to desperate measures in his hope to save them. Hanh is a young woman who is working in order to keep herself and her ill mother barely away from starvation by working at the street toilets where her manager sits opposite constantly drinking yet claiming he can never pay her wage. Alexander is a US army deserter who now deals in women, that’s right, he deals in snatching and selling women. Cruickshanks weaves their story together though, obviously, if you want to know how you need to read the book.

There was much that impressed me with this debut novel. Firstly I liked the fact that whilst the book was set in Vietnam you knew where you were without having the author having to spoon feed you. It wasn’t smacking you over the head all the time (because this isn’t a history text book, it’s a novel), it simmered in the background. It was the same with the war, it didn’t get mentioned all the time yet was the cause for why everyone was in the situation they were in after all – again the scenes with Alexander at war I found very atmospheric and vivid. It didn’t need a lot of show and tell I didn’t think, and actually made me want to go away and find out more about the war as I realised I have very little knowledge of it shamefully.

At the start of the book I was a little concerned that I wasn’t going to get into the heads of any of the characters. Just as I felt I was getting to know either Alexander, Hanh or Phuc we would suddenly be thrown into the others narration. I also couldn’t quite work out what the book was trying to do, was it wanting to be a thriller or was it trying to be a literary novel? As I read on I realised it was aiming for both and that I myself was desperately trying to second guess what the novel was rather than just get lost in it. My fault more than the book itself!

Yet the more I read the more the characters became defined and Alexander started to really intrigue me. Note; if any of you who have read it, please explain the baby in the formaldehyde he carried around, I was a bit puzzled whilst also being oddly fascinated. He is really a bit of a bastard and I worried he would thaw and fall in love with Hanh (not really a spoiler, it is laid on a bit thick this might happen from the off) and for a period of time it looked that way but then Cruickshanks pleasantly surprised me by not doing that at all. I would have liked more psycho-Alexander though and his back story, but maybe that says more about me and my taste for the darkest aspects of fiction.

However she did make Alexander switch quite a lot for the purpose of the plot rather than letting the character lead the narrative, I thought, and Alexander was the most fascinating character for me out of the lot, especially at his most repugnant. I must admit I was secretly hoping he was going to become a fully blown psychopath after hints of his youth in America and behaviour during the war in Vietman, it wasn’t do be but I did find him rather fascinating. I did also have this huge worry, especially after the Phuc gambling incident you describe, that the book was going to become a huge cliché. It never does but I would say that towards the end almost too much happens and as it went on I found I was a bit confused with all the sudden high drama, but hey it was the denouement, it was going to be dramatic wasn’t it?

Overall though I found ‘The Trader of Saigon’ to be an interesting and enlightening read and one which ultimately combines a sense of literary with thriller to great effect. It is one of those books that gives you a peek into another place, time and culture and leaves you wanting to rush off and find out more about it. I know that Lucy is currently working on her second book at the moment and I will be one of the first in the queue to see what she does next as this book shows so much promise for the future of an author to keep your eyes on.

I should add here that I have been slightly lazy (though not ridiculously so as I have extended and expanded on quite a lot) and tweaked, not twerked, my thoughts from the Guardian website. Just so you know. Have any of you read ‘The Trader of Saigon’? What are your thoughts on the new genre of ‘literary thriller’ if such a thing exists? And if it does are there any you would recommend?

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Filed under Heron Books, Lucy Cruickshanks, Not The Booker Prize, Review

Not The Booker, Not Quite Live…

One of the highlights of my bookish year so far (and there have been a few) has been being asked to be on the Guardian’s Not The Booker inaugural judging panel. There were two things I hadn’t quite taken into consideration though. Firstly, I didn’t think I would get to meet any of the authors who I was judging the works of, especially one of them who I had lived up to my name a little with, yet this weekend at the Not The Booker event in London I did. Initial awkwardness was encountered, eventually I think it ended up being okay though as all the authors were lovely. The other thing I didn’t expect was that I would have to judge ‘live’ – on air on the Guardian website and YouTube – yet this morning it was. And I thought I might share the experience with you (settle down with a cuppa)…

Hopefully I didn’t come across like too much of a wally. I am in bed with a bad case of man flu since coming back from London so I had to make myself presentable (I have pyjamas on from the waist down, ha) and I was worried my ‘literary musings’ tended to be along the lines of ‘I just liked it’. Oh and yes those are my bookshelves!

We came up with a winner in the form of the marvellous ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson, but it wasn’t easy – least of all because I was constantly thinking ‘people might watch this so watch your potty mouth Savidge’ – as the competition was super strong, especially from ‘Magda’ by Meike Ziervogel which is amazing and I will be telling you all about very soon. In fact I will be telling you about all the books in some form or another as I really want to discuss the debut novels of Zoe Venditozzi and Lucy Cruickshanks who I think might be two huge authors in the future. Not sure if Gaiman will catch on. Plus the debate of genre and chick-lit that Tullet’s novel brought up. So watch this space for more, and should any book prizes be looking for judges, well…

Let me know what you think of the video if you have a chance to watch it, would you like all prizes to be this ‘open’ to readers? Have you read any of the books shortlisted for the Not The Booker? Have you read this winner or any of the previous NTB winners?

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Filed under Not The Booker Prize, Random Savidgeness