KfC’s Booker shortlist predictions

Tuesday is Booker shortlist day, so here are two lists of predictions to contemplate and comment on over the weekend — my personal top six and a look at what I think will be the judges’ shortlist. My list is in order of preference (click on the title for an expanded review); the predicted list is in order of what I think is the likelihood of the book making the official list.

mawerThe Glass Room, Simon Mawer

It has been some months since I read this book, but it remains my favorite. An interesting premise — a house is the central character in the novel — with equally interesting human characters who pass through the house in a 50-year period. Mawer does have to push coincidence to make the plot work, but I am willing to grant him that licence. I will be rereading it whether or not it makes the real shortlist. Also, it has the best cover on the longlist.

toibinBrooklyn, Colm Toibin

Another selection from early in my Booker reading that I look forward to rereading. This one has got better with memory, as well as some perceptive reviews that I have read since. Toibin’s central character, Eilie, is interesting because she is so passive and let’s others make her choices for her — the result of these choices was impressive the first time around and has grown in memory.

coetzeeSummertime, J.M. Coetzee

In contrast to the first two, this was the last of the 13 longlist books that I read and it was worth the wait. It will not be to everyone’s taste since it is an exploration of the author’s history and what influenced him — and the impact that he had on others. A book that can be read on many different levels and certainly a contender to produce the first three-time winning Booker author. The least imaginative, but perhaps most significant cover, on the longlist — the echoes of the pick-up truck here with the dog on the road in Disgrace are haunting.

trevorLove and Summer, William Trevor

Trevor’s economy of writing (a contrast to both Hilary Mantel and A. S. Byatt) and his subtlety make him a master of the short story but translate well to this challenging novel, a study in tragedy in an isolated Irsh community. It took two readings to appreciate what he accomplished and the book has its contradictions, but it definitely rates shortlist consideration.

watersThe Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

Waters’ book moved up my list as I read more of the longlist. The publisher has marketed it as a ghost story, which is fair on one level but was misleading to this reader. A structure, the declining Hundreds Hall, is also at the centre of this book but the novel focuses on the decline of everyone involved with that estate — most particularly, the narrator, Dr. Faraday, who doesn’t even live there. Waters keeps her story moving and leaves the reader pondering just what exactly happened — and the reader has a number of choices.

hallHow to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall

This one is well behind the first five and in a near tie with James Scudamore’s Helioplis. I like art and two of Hall’s four narrative streams in particular explore the stories of fictional artists with international reputations. Like Summmertime it explores the link between the creative person and the price they extract from those who are close to them. I certainly recommend it but it won’t be my top choice.
Also, given the potential of the subject matter, this is the worst cover in the longlist.

That was the easy part. Now for some thoughts on the Real Booker shortlist. I thought this year’s jury did a very good job of producing a list of readable titles that covered a number of genres, writing styles and approaches — had they included Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows instead of Not Untrue & Not Unkind and Me Cheeta I would have had nothing to criticize on the list. I am going to assume they will take the same ranging approach to the shortlist.

Since there are six “name” authors on the longlist, that means a couple will have to drop off to put some lesser-known authors on it, if my theory is correct. I’ve built that into my predictions.

mantel1. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s Tudor doorstopper did not appeal to me, but even I can recognize that I am out of step on this one, particularly since the jury’s longlist does display a certain UK tilt. I would be very surprised if this book is not on the shortlist and not very surprised if it wins. I would not even complain that much because I know that sometimes my tastes are not really representative.

2. Summertime, J.M. Coetzee. Simply too good a book to keep off the shortlist, but I suspect its limited appeal will keep it from winning.

3. Brooklyn, Colm Toibin. In some ways, this book is already in competition with Love and Summer because they have some similar themes and only one can win so the jury may take that decision at this stage. I think the broader scope of this one moves it ahead — on the other hand, Booker juries don’t seem to like books set in America unless they mock it (see Vernon God Little) so the judges may well opt for the Trevor.

4. The Glass Room, Simon Mawer. Too good a book to be overlooked.

5. The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt. Another doorstopper that I did not like (but can see how it appeals to others). If my jury shortlist theory is correct, it is competing with The Little Stranger for a shortlist spot. I’d love to see Waters move forward, I don’t think she will.

6. How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall. Even if my theory is correct, this spot is a roll of the dice — either The Wilderness , The Quickening Maze or Heliopolis could take this spot. Which suggests that the two contests I thought about earlier (Toibin/Trevor, Byatt/Waters) could fill this final spot. I certainly hope the judges promote one of these four lesser known novelists to the shortlist.

Comments on where I am grossly wrong are certainly welcome. I am sure on Tuesday I will be making a post explaining the errors in the above, but do hope you enjoyed the read.

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23 Responses to “KfC’s Booker shortlist predictions”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I like your list, Kevin, and I hope it looks more like your personal choices. Those turn out to be the ones I’m still interested in reading, though I still have The Quickening Maze and The Children’s Book waiting for me (I just can’t bring myself to begin either one of them — some lingering malady from last year, I think). The Mawer, Coetzee, and Trevor are the three I’m most looking forward to at this point, and I can see a shortlist with them and Toibin being a very strong shortlist regardless of the other two books chosen. Looking forward to the results!

  2. Colette Jones Says:

    We overlap on four personal choices, so I’m not going to criticize your list!

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I do suspect that on the books where we diverge (you like Wolf Hall and The Wilderness against my The Little Stranger and How to Paint a Dead Man) your choices are more likely to be on the judge’s list. I won’t accuse you of being a populist. :-)
    Trevor: The three you are most looking forward to are on both Colette and my lists and are all excellent books. If someone offers you a decent price for The Children’s Book I would advise taking it — just to move it further down your TBR pile, it is reminscent of The Northern Clemency, set a couple of generations earlier.

    A final, diverging, note on this year’s jury. While last year I felt the longlist left off several books that could have won the prize (most notably The Imposter, I don’t think any of the books that I grumble about not being included this year were possible winners.

  4. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    Great coverage of the Booker. I have absolutely loved your reviews. I now know which books I simply must seek out. I already had Brooklyn based on yours and John’s and others’ reviews, but your review in particular has me absolutely salivating for the Coetzee. Thank you.

    Plus, I love how you’ve listed your favorites and your predictions. Excellent job, excellent quick (for us, your readers) analysis. This is how book award coverage is done. Outstanding.

  5. Kerry Says:

    By the way, I have not read any contenders yet, so I cannot really agree or disagree based on my own reading experience. My wife is almost through Brooklyn and loves it though.

  6. John Self Says:

    Your judges’ list looks good, though I believe the Hall place will be taken by The Wilderness. I know you hated it (I haven’t read it), but it seems that people who like this book really love it, and a couple of the judges may well be in that position. Plus, I understand that it’s a less traditional structure than some of the other books, so would make for a bit of variety in the shortlist. (Of course Summertime is also unconventional in structure, so maybe they won’t need another one.)

  7. John Self Says:

    Oh and I agree with Kerry’s assessment of your coverage of the Booker, Kevin. You are thorough, balanced and fair as always.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree that The Wilderness could well earn a spot on the shortlist, although I do think it is a book that will not reward rereading. If the jury is looking for a book that pushes structure, I would not be surprised to see A Quickening Maze take that final spot — and if they stick with the big names, this whole discussion is probably wide of the mark. I agree with your implied sentiment that a book that awakes passion in one or two judges (and more than one are eligible to do that) is probably going to advance to the shortlist. My guess is that the winner will come from the Wolf Hall, Summertime, Brooklyn, The Glass Room group.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry, John: Thanks for your kind comments — I enjoyed the experience, even with the books that I personally did not like that much. I’m heartened that two people in emails have said that my review of Wolf Hall, which I didn’t like, motivated them to read the book. That is perhaps the best recommendation I could ask for because I think all of the longlist books (all right, maybe not the O’Loughlin) are worth reading.

  10. Colette Jones Says:

    I’m intrigued by your comparison of The Children’s Book and The Northern Clemency (in comments above). I thoroughly enjoyed tNC and as you know, decided not to carry on with tCB after 100 pages. Hensher stuck to the interactions between the characters. The interaction between characters were the parts of Byatt’s offering which I liked but they were so sparsely interspersed with masses of exposition that I just couldn’t read the book.

    An aside:
    My 12 year old son gave me the word “exposition”. I was explaining to him what I didn’t like about The Children’s Book and he said, “Yea, too much exposition” and went on to discuss how the author should show, not tell. I must admit I had to look the word up to see if he was right and it appears he did understand the term as well as what I was saying about the book. I was mightily impressed to think that his school must be teaching him this, but the reality is he had attended a workshop on Writing Fantasy at EdBookFest the prior week where it was discussed that too much exposition was a common problem with fantasy writing.

  11. My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: September 5, 2009 « Hungry Like the Woolf Says:

    [...] The shortlist will be out Tuesday. KfC has high quality reviews of every longlisted book and a post of favorites/shortlist-predictions with quick summaries. You can browse his Booker postings from now until Tuesday or simply hop over for a quick rundown. [...]

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    My comparison of tCB and tNC would be that both books explored (in considerable expository detail) both a region and a period in British history. While I have some interest in both periods, I found both books to be just a bit much. I agree that Byatt had so many characters — and so much exposition — that they tended to get lost. Mantel, on the other hand, rather overwhelms with character interaction.

  13. Sheila o'brien Says:

    Kfc
    since you have done such a wonderful job of reviewing and predicting the bookers have you given any thought to opening your own betting line on the results? I’m sure your knowledgable blog readers could establish a much more realistic line on the books than ladbrokes could ever dream of…..and you could get the vigorish. Just a thought from mrs kfc.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Alas, the authorities in Canada take a rather dim view of anyone other than themselves running gaming operations, so I am restricted to wagering at offshort betting shops.

  15. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve not taken much of an interest in the Booker this year, or last, as I’ve come to the conclusion that they are giant marketing exercises… But…. but…. I’ve really enjoyed reading your reviews and hearing your opinions on the contenders. If I was to take a shot in the dark, I reckon Mantel will not only be on the shortlist, she will win it… Ive not read the book myself but it’s just a gut feeling.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The original Booker mandate did say it was a marketing exercise, although from posts I have read on forums elsewhere it seems UK bookshops are not only not putting up longlist displays, some of them don’t even have titles in stock (this year’s list did feature a number that were awaiting reprinting — and less than half the titles have been released in North America, so the marketing has not gone well). Despite that, I have always found both the longlist and shortlist to be a useful guide to worthwhile new books, even if some of them are not to my taste. It does mean that I read some books (Mantel is a good example) that I would otherwise overlook.

  17. kimbofo Says:

    Well, four out of six ain’t bad, Kevin!

    Now, can you name the winner?

    (My money’s still on Mantel, but Coetzee might be in with a shot, too)

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Four out of six indeed — and I’ll take some pride in mentioning the other two. As for the judge’s pick for the winner, given that they moved all three “big” books forward, I’d have to say the Mantel is favoured. I think the Coetzee is a little too “authorly” to win — but then the surprise presence of The Quickening Maze on shortlist indicates there is somebody arguing for books like that. My personal favorite is still The Glass Room.

  19. William Rycroft Says:

    The Glass Room is my favourite too Kevin. Well done for guessing well. I wonder if the flurry of money on Mantel might have any impact on the judges, I bet they hate being ‘told’ who should win.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have wondered in the past if there isn’t a bit of “let’s show them” attitude when there is a short-priced betting favorite. My Irish bookie now has the Mantel at 11-10, followed by Waters at 3-1 and Coetzee at 7-2. Mawer only came down to 12-1 today, but I suspect that is because not very many punters have read the book since it was awaiting reprinting for most of the time since the longlist was announced. I can’t help but scratch my head that the jury has produced a longlist that certainly leans toward the traditional English historical novel — which doesn’t bode well for The Glass Room. I haven’t reread it yet so I am interested in seeing whether it moves ahead when I do.

  21. Kerry Says:

    Great job, Kevin. I think Summertime and The Glass Room will be the only shortlisters making my TBR, at least in the near term. For the same reason they make my TBR, I will be rooting for one of them to win.

    I would actually prefer for The Glass Room to win for several reasons, not least Coetzee has a couple Bookers and a Nobel already. But if not The Glass Room, I am cheering for Summertime on the basis of your and John Self’s reviews. I am very eager to read it, but not eager enough to go the whole international route, though I have done that with other books.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I think Summertime’s biggest hurdle will be that it would make Coetzee the first third-time winner — and I just don’t think the book is that good, even though I enjoyed it. Wolf Hall is definitely a contender and I suspect The Little Stranger moves up on rereading. I still think The Glass Room is the best choice but Booker juries and I don’t have a record of agreeing on the final winner. I do think this year’s list is a good list — perhaps a tad heavy on longish historical novels, but no real clunkers. I had a struggle with The Quickening Maze at the longlist stage, but may give it another shot now that it is on the shortlist.

  23. Rob Says:

    God, I still haven’t read The Glass Room. I’d better get on with it, so I know what face to pull when it wins / doesn’t win.

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