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2016 Man Booker: Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

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After a rather polarizing last book, we have moved onto our next longlist book: Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves. Three of our panelists read and reviewed this book. Did our judges come to an greater agreement on this book? Keep reading to find out and see where it ranks on our list.

Note: Thank you to Scribner for providing us with review copies in exchange for our honest reviews

Work Like Any Other
by Virginia Reeves
Published in: 2016
Judges: Jen, Nicole, Book Worm
Find it/Buy it here: Work Like Any Other

Synopsis (from Amazon): In this astonishingly accomplished, morally complicated, “exceptional and starkly beautiful debut” (Kevin Powers, National Book Award–nominated author of The Yellow Birds), a prideful electrician in 1920s rural Alabama struggles to overcome past sins and find peace after being sent to prison for manslaughter.

Roscoe T Martin set his sights on a new type of power spreading at the start of the twentieth century: electricity. It became his training, his life’s work. But when his wife, Marie, inherits her father’s failing farm, Roscoe has to give up his livelihood, with great cost to his sense of self, his marriage, and his family. Realizing he might lose them all if he doesn’t do something, he begins to use his skills as an electrician to siphon energy from the state, ushering in a period of bounty and happiness. Even the love of Marie and their child seem back within Roscoe’s grasp.

Then a young man working for the state power company stumbles on Roscoe’s illegal lines and is electrocuted, and everything changes: Roscoe is arrested; the farm once more starts to deteriorate; and Marie abandons her husband, leaving him to face his twenty-year sentence alone. Now an unmoored Roscoe must carve out a place at Kilby Prison. Climbing the ranks of the incarcerated from dairy hand to librarian to “dog boy,” an inmate who helps the guards track down escapees, he is ultimately forced to ask himself once more if his work is just that, or if the price of his crimes—for him and his family—is greater than he ever let himself believe.

Gorgeously spare and brilliantly insightful, Work Like Any Other is “a striking debut about love and redemption, the heavy burdens of family and guilt, and learning how to escape them

Jen’s Review: I loved this quiet and emotionally beautiful novel. I read this after finishing The North Water and The Sellout, both of which I enjoyed, but both of which were relatively dramatic and bold. This was a dramatic departure from those two books. I tend to favor writing styles that are more flowery and poetic and this book was written in a very sparse manner. Yet, I found the style to be beautiful and perfectly suited to the purpose of the novel. Reeves packs a lot into the book (racism, family relationships, prison conditions in the 1920s, love, resentment, guilt, and parenting) and she touches upon relationships of many kinds. I found myself very engaged in Roscoe’s story and I enjoyed the alternating chapters that shifted in both time and perspective. While the general themes weren’t the most original, the context/plot was different and the use of alternating time points and alternating first and second person narratives added to the originality of the book.

The characters were well-developed and complex. I took off one point for plot development because I felt like the author was attempting to take on more issues that needed for one novel (and some of them got the short end of the stick) and I didn’t love the ending (NOTE: added after reading Nicole & BW’s reviews — to clarify, I too thought the ending was very fitting for the book, but it still made me feel a little frustrated). It was a deceptively simple book that in reality had a lot of depth and emotion. From the synopsis, I didn’t think it would be the sort of book that would be too interesting to me. Boy was I wrong. It was interesting, beautifully-written, and touching. Overall, I loved the book and it would have been a 5-star read using my regular rating system. Definitely one of my favorites of the list so far and I’ll be added Virginia Reeves as an author to follow in the future.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 4/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 18/20

Nicole’s Review:  This seemed like it was going to be a book like any other and at first I didn’t think I was going to like it, in fact I thought about abandoning it.  But there was something about it that drew me in and it didn’t take long before I was completely in love.  Poor hapless Roscoe reminded me a lot of Stoner; this totally lovable person who bumbled his way into a circumstance he didn’t seem destined for.

It’s not particularly original, and had I not loved the book so much I would have scored that lower.  It was a beautiful book, and unlike Jen I thought the ending fitting.  It’s 5 stars and a 2016 favorite for me.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 4/5
Character development:4/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 18/20

Book Worm’s Review: Like Jen and Nicole I also loved this book and I agree with Nicole that the ending was fitting.

While the main character was Roscoe and all the narratives focused around what was happening in his life, the secondary characters were all well drawn and 3 dimensional. Each had their own faults and foibles and I have to confess I loved Maggie the hunting dog.

I loved the way the story had a different take on what would usually happen within a marriage, how Roscoe faces his life in prison, what keeps him going, and how different life is from what he expects.

The time period and setting of Alabama also added to the enjoyment for me.

This is my favourite of the longlist so far.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 4/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 18/20

Average score across all panelists: 18/20

Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. Work Like Any Other (18/20)
2. The Sellout (17/20)
3. My Name is Lucy Barton (16.13/20)
4. The North Water (13.5/20)
6. Eileen (12.5/20)

Want to try it for yourself? You can buy your copy here: Work Like Any Other

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? Does it deserve to make the Man Booker Shortlist? Do you plan on reading this book? 

Next up (tomorrow): Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tracy S #

    I just finished this a few days ago, after stumbling upon it at the library. Like the three of you, I loved it. (like you’re surprised?) It is a thought provoking read, and I loved the spare prose- it enhanced the setting and the tone so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 24, 2016
    • Yes! I am so glad you were able to get to this too. Great book -and no, it doesn’t surprise me.

      Like

      August 24, 2016
  2. Lisa #

    I just finished the book as well. It definitely drew me in- which was surprising given that the synopsis didn’t really appeal to me. However, I am dissatisfied with the author’s portrayal of Roscoe’s marriage- what brought them together in the first place?

    Liked by 1 person

    August 24, 2016
    • I have to give it some thought and take a look at the book. This was one of the first ones I read and I don’t remember all the details but I do have a vague memory of some mention of how they met and fell for each other. I think at first she was captivated by his ambition and drive to escape what what she seemed an awful profession. I’d have to reflect on it a while. I understand what you mean but it didn’t stile me in a way that made me question of feel dissatisfied because I thought the focus was more on the slow breakdown of the marriage over the years than in what brought them together -although I know they are intertwined.

      Like

      August 24, 2016
  3. Scott #

    Such a unique and terrific book. The story is fascinating, original and characters perfectly believable. The conclusion was the most powerful, in that it redeemed a character I felt throughout to be an absolute bitch, and it was further evidence of Roscoe’a benevolence.

    I’m six books in THE LIST and my fave three:

    The North Water
    Work Like Any Other
    The Sellout

    Liked by 1 person

    August 24, 2016
    • I think it was a perfect ending but on an emotional level, I just felt frustrated. I did feel some empathy for his wife throughout the book though so I didn’t necessarily feel that she was an awful person all the time. I think Roscoe’s behaviors included several that likely contributed to his wife’s actions and the problems in their marriage. And I think Reeves did a good job presenting the back story to their behaviors and reactions.

      This is definitely a favorite for me. Which other three have you read? Lucy Barton, Eileen, and ?

      Like

      August 24, 2016
      • Scott #

        I’ve read:

        The North Water
        Work Like Any Other
        The Sellout
        My Name is Lucy Barton
        Eileen
        Hot Milk

        Liked by 1 person

        August 25, 2016
      • Then you are probably going to disagree with us this morning -reviewing Hot Milk. But I hope you stop by and tell us why

        Like

        August 25, 2016
  4. This sounds so intriguing. I haven’t been able to start on any of the list yet, but I’d really like to.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 24, 2016
    • Fortunately most of them are quite short so you might be able to squeeze in a few before the shortlist. This is a really good one but check back tomorrow to see Hot Milk. That may appeal to you also.

      Liked by 1 person

      August 24, 2016
  5. This is one of the long listed titles that didn’t immediately make me want to rush out and get it when I read the summary. But now I read all your reactions I’m thinking i might need to change my thinking. I know i’m not going to get to it before the shortlist though

    Liked by 1 person

    August 25, 2016
    • I felt the same. The description didn’t really appeal to me but it was very good

      Like

      August 25, 2016
    • That’s how I felt, too, but I’ve now added it to my library wish list and will get to it at some point this year.

      Liked by 1 person

      August 30, 2016
  6. Some other books immediately caught my eye when I checked the long list, so much so that I forgot that this one is also long listed! Now I really want to read it!
    Sometimes it’s those underrated books that end up making the shortlist and winning the Booker.

    It’s really great that you’re reviewing all the long listed books! Hot Milk is also on my wish list as a result of your blog! Now I can’t wait to see what you think of His Bloody Project and Do Not Say We Have Nothing, two books that appeal to me a lot on the long list. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    August 31, 2016
    • I hope you enjoy them. I think the list is really strong this year. In the past I’ve liked about have the list but this year, I’ve loved most. We should be posting His Bloody Project Friday. The other one probably next week (I loved it though).

      Like

      August 31, 2016

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