For the fifth year, we have invited five of the freshest and most insightful book bloggers and bookstagrammers to share their thoughts on our shortlist – and to choose their winner to be revealed on 3 December.
“Surge is an extremely affecting, highly innovative and utterly haunting take on the New Cross Fire of 1981 where 13 young black people were killed. Growing up in China this was the first time I read about this incident and my heart sank so badly for what had happened. Tracing a line from the New Cross Fire to the Grenfell Fire, Jay Bernard has presented us with the inhuman similarities of both incidents through his passionate and intimate poems. There was one section of the poetry about “seeing the father”, I was so heart-broken that I needed to take a break from this book.”
” it’s the passages of lyrical, almost manic poetic intensity that try to replicate the ‘brain on fire’ phenomenon of psychosis which I found particularly moving. I have seldom seen the dangerous temptation of allowing oneself to sink into the abyss described so well”
“Tongues of Fire is a collection of poems that transform our views of the world through nature, beliefs and emotions. Each poem touches upon different themes, love, sexuality, masculinity, madness, loss, grief and peace. The beauty of all Sean Hewitt’s poems lays in the quietness, the gentleness and the greatness of all that will be, all that can be and all that will never be.”
The Perseverance is an eclectic collection that truly took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting quite such a perfectly poised balance of personal experience and international cultural and historical references. This style lodges the writing within both familiar and unknown eras and events for the reader, making it an immersive experience. I thoroughly appreciated the illustrations that accompany some of the work because they give a credence to another form of language than the written words on the page.
Salt Slow is a beautifully written collection that surprises, shocks and entertains. Julia Armfield writes in such an innovative manner in Salt Slow that the ills, fears and desires of modern society are presented in startlingly mystical and yet totally believable ways. Her quality of prose left me reeling. I loved the poetic nature of her descriptions. In Salt Slow Julia Armfield manages to encapsulate precisely what the reader might have thought if only they had had the same glorious skill in creating the same new, descriptive compound words. To me this felt like living breathing writing that appealed to all my senses. This is a truly organic collection.
This is a book that’s impossible to summarise. There are so many threads. It looks back to Brazilian politics in the 90s, with police brutality and disappearances. It takes in something that happened to the protagonist, which has left her, at some level, traumatised and uneasy, possibly with physical consequences – whatever happened is hinted at and explored here but rarely confronted, although it does seem to come to a resolution. And that stands for much of this book in a way – all those layers, those different version of the same woman, lend the story a sense of completion so that the story isn’t happening in front of us, as it were, more being documented – a kind of coolness in the perspective which contrasts with the closeness from the textual style.
“a novel about the human spirit, the connections that families have, and how in times of extreme suffering and devastation that all we seek as humans is the notion that we are belong to the human race either through blood, or a shared experience however difficult that might be.”
Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail. Women are dependent on men to make their way in this world – Mrs Chappell earns her money from their debauchery, Bel finds her way to respectability and security through marriage – Mrs Flowerday is perhaps the most independent, shrewdly using her dowry as a counterweight when her husband oversteps the mark. As in the best morality tales, there’s a great deal of sly wit running through the narrative.
Laura Freeman – The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite
Freeman weaves her story lightly through her reading so that books are to the fore, describing her illness in plain language that rings with truth. She writes about books beautifully, picking out evocative descriptions of food which have helped her inch towards a less fraught relationship with it. Reading helps clarify her thoughts while walking muffles the voices in her head just as it did for Virginia Woolf as Freeman discovers in Woolf’s diaries. The epilogue is both a lovely testament to the love and help of friends and family, and an expression of hope that her book might help others with whatever ails them.
The writing is rich and lyrical. Beautiful in some parts and captivating. The landscape is described in enough detail for you to feel part of it. There is also a somewhat ‘timeless’ feel to this story. There are points where the narrative and backdrop feel almost historical. Were it not for the modern day references it could almost feel like you are experiencing a different age. Having said that there are also moments where it feels like you’re reading about a dystopian, lawless world.
Adam Weymouth – Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey
Weymouth takes time to talk to those he meets, tease out the stories and understand the shocking effects we have been causing on this otherwise unspoilt wilderness and the way that people who have depended on this natural resource are trying to change to reverse some of the changes. For a debut travel writer, he is pretty accomplished. This is a really enjoyable travel book with a sharp focus and I am looking forward to reading what he does next.
“‘The Lucky Ones’ is in many ways reminiscent of The Shore by Sara Taylor – another collection of interlinked short stories which was coincidentally shortlisted for the same literary prize two years ago – both of which draw on the evocative settings of the authors’ childhoods and are helped rather than hindered by unconventional and non-linear structures. Pachico’s writing exhibits a surreal power and I’m looking forward to reading what she writes next.”
“The first thing to note about a novel with “Conversations” in the title is that there are no quotation marks denoting speech. In a book so saturated with in-person chats, telephone calls, texts, e-mails and instant messages, the lack of speech marks reflects the swirl of voices in twenty-one-year-old Frances’ head; thought and dialogue run together. This is a work in which communication is a constant struggle but words have lasting significance.”
“The title of the book is a bit of a red herring; yes, in theory, Ma and Alex are embarking on a two-year road trip across America to track down the five women—all named Laura—who played important roles in Ma’s life. But the focus of the book is not really on these women, or even necessarily on Ma’s past. Alex, who identifies as neither male nor female, is our narrator; we spend all of our time in their head, and what The Lauras is really about is the slow journey of a person towards comfort in their own skin.”
“It’s a cool concept, and I was excited to begin with. I liked how it’s just an accepted part of life and thought that added an interesting slant to it, and it forces the reader to ask themselves all sorts of questions about life and death. It almost felt a bit like Neil Gaiman in places, and I thought for a while that it would make a good Tim Burton movie. Then I changed my mind and thought that Quentin Tarantino would do a better job of it.”
Runciman is certainly an intriguing choice of subject for a biography – he appears to be such an enigmatic figure as to be almost unknowable at times – and the contrast between the different aspects of Runciman’s colourful life and personality lies at the heart of the book. Dinshaw draws on Runciman’s unpublished (albeit sometimes unreliable) memoirs and other personal archives to tease out a complex and multifaceted portrait of the eminient historian who Dinshaw described as “an old-fashioned courtly queer” at the event for bloggers last weekend.
“Benjamin Wood constructs his story carefully so that the past reflects meaningfully upon the present in Elspeth’s journey as an artist. All the while it has tremendous momentum and drive making it compulsively readable. The closest comparison I can make for Wood’s novel is Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” for the way in which it deals with high concepts about art in a way which is utterly unpretentious and tells a cracking good story at the same time. The ending has left me thinking hard about how we create and commune with art. “The Ecliptic” is a passionate, invigorating and expertly conceived novel.”
“And everything is written with a refreshing candour and raw emotion. It’s almost as though McMillan ripped his heart out and pinned it dripping to the pages of this short book. Yet it’s not without a sense of humour, as the title alone of The Fact we Almost Killed a Badger is Incidental may suggest. All up, I very much enjoyed this collection of poems — it took me right out of my comfort zone but I was in good hands.”
Jessie Greengrass – An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It
“An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It is a confident collection exploring some fundamentally human issues through some of the most mundane of situations and some of the most extraordinary. It’s an interesting collection in which the stories are often densely packed with the narrator’s thoughts – this is very much a series of protagonists who tell you their stories. I’m interested to see where Greengrass goes next..”
“So to put it simply, I think that Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a rather exceptional book. It is one which puts you through the ringer, leaving you distraught and then hopeful. It is the sort of book you rush through once and then have to go back through and read slowly taking all the intricacies in and then pondering over it all afterwards. It resonated with me and affected me, which is all I ever hope for from a book – one of my books of the year.”
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