Monday, March 18, 2024

How to Build a Boat - Elaine Feeney (And a 2023 Booker Prize List Ranking Update)


Elaine Feeney's How to Build a Boat was a 2023 Booker Prize nominee, and in my estimation it is one of the better ones nominated last year. How to Build a Boat does share one of the more common themes of the 2023 Booker novels in that its main character is somewhere deep on the autism spectrum, but I found it to be more optimistic and hopeful than All the Little Bird-Hearts, Study for Obedience, or This Other Eden, other nominees featuring similar main characters. 

The novel is the coming-of-age story of Jamie, a young boy about to begin his secondary schooling, his single-parent father, and the grandmother who lives next door to the pair. Jamie was born to two young students totally unprepared to raise a child, and when his mother died less than an hour after Jamie's birth and her family walked away from the baby in their deep grief, he seemed doomed from the moment he took his first breath. But Eoin, the boy's young father, made sure that did not happen, and with the help of his own mother, Eoin gives Jamie precisely the home he needs.

But as it turns out, Jamie's brilliance is offset by an equally remarkable lack of social skills, and any kind of change to his routine, especially one that requires him to meet new people, is often more than Jamie can handle. Jamie has known only one school setting in his life, a small school in which teachers and students have finally accepted him for who he is, and he's been happy there. The transition to a much larger, louder Catholic school is going to be an immense challenge for someone like him.

Luckily for Jamie, within days of his arrival at the new school two empathetic teachers (Tess, the English teacher and Mr. Foley, the woodworking teacher) spot Jamie and try to help him adjust to his new daily environment. But unluckily for Jamie, Tess and Foley are not the only ones who quickly spot him, and within minutes of his arrival at the new school Jamie becomes an easy target for the school's cast of bullies. 

By this point, you are probably wondering why I call How to Build a Boat optimistic and hopeful. It's true that there are plenty of hard days ahead for Jamie, but as it turns out, the two teachers who have taken him under their wings are as troubled in their own ways as Jamie is. The near-perfect combination of these three people might just work in a magical sort of way to the benefit of all of them. So now, on any given day, it's a question of exactly who is helping whom?

Irish Author Elaine Feeney


I find it kind of funny that the only one of the thirteen 2023 Booker Prize nominees that I've still not been able to get my hands on via my public library system is the eventual prize winner, Prophet Song. How to Build a Boat was definitely worth the wait, however, because I really enjoyed it and, I rank it high on the list of twelve Booker books I've now experienced for myself. 

As I continue to wait for Prophet Song (I'm number five on the wait-list but it only seems to be moving by one book a week on average), my updated list looks like this:

  1. The House of Doors
  2. The Bee Sting
  3. If I Survive You
  4. How to Build a Boat
  5. Western Lane
  6. All the Little Bird-Hearts
  7. Pearl
  8. Old God's Time
  9. This Other Eden
  10. Study for Obedience
  11. A Spell of Good Things
  12. The Ascension


  1. Glad this one was a little more optimistic and hopeful than some of the others! I like books that have this kind of found family feel to them.

    1. That's the best thing about this story, I think. The loyalty that each of the three feels toward the others is unique to each of them based on their own emotional capabilities and needs. They came together to form something unique and each of them benefitted from the experience and could not have done it without the other two.

  2. I wasn' t sure if How To Build A Boat would be for me but your review really has me interested. What jumped out at me is Jamie's transition to a larger Catholic school. Bullying is a very serious issue and you would think in a religious school it wouldn't be that bad but that's wrong. Fortunately Jamie has Tess and Mr. Foley and that's great because too many teachers never see what's going on. So this book is going on my TBR list.

    And very pleased that If I Survive You is now available on Kindle Unlimited!

    1. Unfortunately, the priest in charge of the school is not a good man who cares about his students much. He sees Jamie as an embarrassment to the school because of the way he acts out emotionally under stress. He's kind of a cliché, I think, and I thought he was the weakest link in the string of an otherwise memorable group of characters...but he's the perfect villain, and the story wouldn't be quite the same one without him.

    2. Oh...forgot to mention. That's great about If I Survive You being in Kindle Unlimited. How did that come to your attention? I've had the service for over four months now, but I'm not using it as much as I thought I would. I've read two books from it and a few short stories from magazines, but that's it. Is it a main source of material for you?

    3. Hi Sam, Kindle and even more so Kindle Unlimited is a main source for me because my library is badly stocked. I found If I Survive You because I have a list of books I want to read and I keep checking Amazon to see if the book has gone down in price or has made it to Kindle Unlimited. Kindle Unlimited also alerts us to books now available but it's often not what I have been looking for and so I check on my own.

    4. Thanks for that, Kathy. I wish Kindle Unlimited provided some kind of individualized "Wish List" that would trigger exactly what you mention. I suspect it's much better than I thought it was but it's still hit and miss for me.

  3. This definitely sounds like one for my list! The House of Doors is still there, too. I'm also interested in The Bee Sting, but have no idea when I might get to it. I've enjoyed following along with your Booker project and am sure I would not have read If I Survive You (a book I still think about) without your review. Thanks, Sam.

    1. You just made my day, JoAnn. I absolutely love it when someone tells me that they really enjoyed something that I talked about here. I always kind of worry that people will have the opposite experience. One more to go, and I'm really curious as now as to where the "winner" is going to rank on my list. I do have a downloaded sample from Amazon Kindle that seems to have at least the first chapter, so I might take a sneak preview soon out of curiosity.

  4. You've read a couple novels with autism themes right? Perhaps you will be an expert on it. I appreciate your Booker list and feel pretty sure that The House of Doors will not be overthrown with one novel left to read. Hmm. I'm still on a long library list for Prophet Song too. And plan to read The House of Doors this year too.

    1. I don't understand the delay on Prophet Song. It's not a very long novel at all (although densely packed), but the turnover seems to be exceptionally slow for some reason. Probably because each library system is not buying way enough copies to meet the initial demand from readers. I find autism to be a fascinating condition, and have friends with children who are on the spectrum. I enjoy being around each of them because of how differently their minds work and how unusually they process information. I also have an adult friend who is on the spectrum that I've known for over 20 years now.


I always love hearing from you guys...that's what keeps me book-blogging. Thanks for stopping by.