It's odd to have been in the boxing ring last year with The Blue and now to be watching from outside the ropes. The announcement of the Montana NZ Book Awards shortlist today certainly got arch-critic of the 2008 finalists, Beattie's Book Blog, warmed up again. The controversies which kept him busy last year - four books instead of the usual five in the fiction finalists and no shortlist for the First Book of Fiction - aren't issues this year, but his concerns are still with that pesky fiction list and what he identifies as a strong lean towards the literary.
First off, Bookman raises questions about the inclusion of Kate de Goldi's 10 PM Question. Not because it's highbrow, but because it's just won the NZ Post Children's Book Award and going for an adult prize looks like a case of mistaken identity. Personally, I like the book's chutzpah and for what it says about the highly successful but ghettoised world of children's fiction in this country. On top of this, 10 PM Question is a finely-crafted, compelling novel sold to and enjoyed, I'd guess, by more adults than children. It's topped the adult fiction list and - anecdotally - I know more adults who've loved it than children. But is it an adult novel?
Bookman links to a Paula Morris review which says 'no' mainly due to inconsistencies in Frankie's voice and a lack of distance between narrator and action. My blog opinion on 10 PM Question is here, and I stick to that, but since this morning, I've been pondering the question Bookman poses: Is it an adult novel? Judged purely on readership, and on my own excitement about it, I'd have to say 'yes'.
On it's qualities as a novel, I'll say this - a good author like Kate de Goldi allows apparent inconsistencies in voice of a first person narrator to let the reader in and uses a range of tricks to cover his/her tracks; and as far as 'distance' goes, the adult sensibility of Frankie does - I believe - create distance. Finally, 10 PM Question may not have the complexities and ironies of Charlotte Randall's shortlisted novel Crocus Hour but then Randall's novel doesn't have the rich characterisation or humour of de Goldi's. How to judge? Last year I attended a forum where the Montana judges discussed the choices they'd made ...
The quirky Crocus Hour is another novel Bookman Beattie believes isn't up to the fiction shortlist. It certainly hasn't whipped up much excitement in reviewer ranks but that doesn't always mean it's a bad book. I am a Randall fan and while I recognise her latest novel is not up there with her brilliant and award-winning The Curative, it is still an exciting read that takes some welcome risks. My blog opinion is here. For the same reasons, Bookman queries YA author Bernard Beckett's first adult novel Acid Song. Having not read it, I can't comment except to say I have talked to readers captivated by this book of ideas.
For different reasons, Bookman wonders about the inclusion of newbie novelist Ellie Catton's The Rehearsal. He's concerned about its literariness and the difficulties people have reading it. Look, I haven't read this one despite promising to, but I have heard Ellie read from it, and the intricate and intelligent loops her language took impressed me deeply. I'm guessing that's what's impressed her UK publisher Granta and the Montana judges.
Fifth on the list, and okay with the Bookman, is Emily Perkins' Novel About My Wife. It's already met with considerable success overseas and rave reviews here and is my pick for the winner. [And before I forget the short list for Best First Book of Fiction, Catton's The Rehearsal has to take this one out, but fantastic to see a fave of mine Bridget van der Zijpp's Misconduct in there.]
So is the Bookman right? Is Montana fiction this year a lit list not a hit list? I like to see challenging novels that take risks up there in the finalist ranks of our national book prize. If there's only one major prize this is what it must do, surely. It's all about that thing called the pursuit of excellence. And so yes, these sorts of novels are usually more lit than hit, although de Goldi's novel is a definite bestseller. At the same time, I agree with Bookman that it would be great to see us follow the UK model and have a parallel prize system which recognises that heart-warming necessity: a 'good read.' Sponsors step forward please...