Wednesday 11 September 2013

Sorting the Booker's Dozen

So, the Man Booker shortlist was announced yesterday! Although I wasn't there, J and A's book group had a special Booker evening - each person had read one book and presented it to the rest of the group, and predicted if they thought it would make the short list (instructions were to not listen to the news during the day!) For those not there (me included), we sent our notes forward. So, here are the highlights of everyone's thoughts on the WHOLE long list for the Man Booker. I'll "announce" the results at the end, although you may know already, of course.

Harvest by Jim Crace - reviewed by DW

Jim Crace is an experienced author with lots of previous prizes, and this is a very literary work.
Genre/plot: a tale, set of events. No particular time or setting, extraordinary events and circumstances. Author is an outsider, but commenting in the first person - a difficult feat to pull off, but done successfully.
Cover: quite good - outdoorsy as the book is and ties in with the harvest, which the book is much about.
Readability: believable, although fantastical. Ends with lots of unanswered questions - as life! Quite short, but very compelling when you got going. Short readable chapters.
Characterisation: characters were not what it was really about, but you ended up wanting to know about them.
Overall: very much enjoyed it. A book of real literary heritage.

Did DW think it would make the Short List: YES.

The Kills by Richard House - reviewed by DF

Previously unknown author; House brought up in a military family and probably lived in Cyprus, Malta, Naples and the US.
Genre/plot: is this a novel, or is it 4 novels in 1? It's about the Iraq war and afterwards, disposing of ordanance in 'burn pits' that produce lots of dangerous toxins. Central character is being set up to take the blame for some of the corruption and goes on the run. Very long! - 1000 pages.
Readability: somewhat compelling, although not finished!
Characterisation: good.
Overall: first novel good, second novel sordid. Interactive book with attached websites, but no literary heritage. R didn't finish it, but would like to.

Did A think it would make the Short List: Yes, due to wackiness.

Unexploded by Alison Macleod - reviewed by CG

Genre/plot: set in WW2 in Brighton - anxiety over German invasion and rounding up of enemy aliens. Husband of the central protagonist is a bank manger with a secret in a box, and we do find out what it is.
Readability: twee, not gripping. Overdone writing - longed for some narrative to break up the first person writing.
Overall: not gripping, pretty short and too many commas!

Did CG think it would make the Short List: it shouldn't.

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson reviewed by CF

Charlotte Mendelson is an established British author of Hungarian parents who went to Oxford.
Genre/plot: story of elderly Hungarian people and families. It's semi-funny with heavily accented old aunts poking the younger ones, and the youngest manages to escape to a boarding school. Describes how a girl copes in a mainly boys school and a mother copes with the pangs of an empty nest.
Cover: is understated, like the book itself.
Readability: believable plot - but what plot? No conclusion. Unengaging, frustrating, but just about wanted to find out what happened. Clever and witty in places.
Characterisation: didn't care about the characters.
Overall: only just managed to finish it. No one would like it.

Did CG think it think it would make the Short List: No.

  A Tale for the Time being by Ruth Ozeki reviewed by AJ

Ruth Odzeki was born the US and brought up in Japan

Genre/plot: refers to a Buddhist 12th century philosphical work, so AJ was very excited. Started optimistically but found it trash by page 1. It tells the story of a Japanese teenager, written as a diary that gets washed up by the tsnumai in Canada, so 1st person. Zen master grandmother comes into it quite a lot, and lots of Japanese culture.

Overall: trash!

Did AJ think it would make the Short List: No.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw reviewed by CN

Tash Aw is Taiwanese living in London and brought up in Malaysia.
Genre/plot: possibly a family saga? Set in the present day and about people's ambitions etc.
Cover: like the inspirational books the characters are into. Second cover (endpapers) show the dreary, smokey Shanghai tenements where these people live.
Readability: smoothly written, easy to read, fun, amusing. Not trivial, although quite lightweight.
Overall: CN didn't finish it - but wants to, probably because of the element of Eastern exoticism. Not sure if there will be a message, a resolution, but would like to find out! It's not significant in a literary sense, but does open a window into the hugeness of China we're all so interested in. Many of the book group would like, but not love, it.

Did CN think it would make the Short List: possibly, because of the topic and setting.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo reviewed by RA

NoViolet grew up in Zimbabwe, went to study in the USA at age 18 and stayed there.
Genre/plot: the story of someone who grew up in Zimbabwe and went to study in the USA... Told first person point of view, relatively short.
Cover: very colourful!
Readability: to begin with it was fascinating, but soon descended into a somewhat formulaic production. The author clearly had a number of issues she wanted to get over and the chapters seemed to be a way of ticking them off one by one - seemed disjointed at times, and RA had no idea why Bulawayo had depected the sometimes dreadful scenes she did. Floated between compelling prose and mundane drivel.
Characterisation: the names were as interesting as the author's own! If the characters were realistic, he didn't particularly like any of them.
Overall: not significant in terms of literary heritage.

Did J think it would make the Short List: he wouldn't Short List it! If it makes it, it's only because it's very much 'of the moment' and tells part of much needed to be told tale.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan reviewed by CG

Mr Ryan is a 36-year-old civil servant, living and working in Ireland. Debut novel, although the second he's written - will be out soon!
Genre/plot: set in rural Ireland in the recession. All the characters are suffering, including those affected by a 'celtic-tiger' developer who has gone bust and absconded leaving some inhabitants of a village high and dry. Structure was the most notable part - a 'story' is told successively by 21 different narrators, all of whom add a bit of their own (largely miserable) histories as they go. Therefore, lots of unrelated material and 'mysteries' that are never explained.
Cover: uninspiring.
Readability: the plot was compelling in that you wanted to know what happened next, but one was continually side-tracked by the next character's history. Different 'voices' were well presented but the changing vernacular and dialect kept you on your toes and slowed you down a bit.
Characterisation: shallow. Difficult to come up with 21 unlikeable characters, but he seemed to succeed - C didn't care much for any of them. No character particulary well drawn, possibly to do with length? (only 160 pages).
Overall: not a classic - maybe a film?

Did CG think it would make the Short List: No, although it has won the Irish 'book of the year' award, so it is an outside possibility.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton reviewed by JT
Eleanor is Canadian born, New Zealand raised and has a US degree in creative writing. Youngest over nominee for the Man Booker!
Genre/plot: historical realist fiction/'whodunnit.' Very long, over 800 pages.
Cover: striking and intriguing (although he didn't like it!)
Readability: the first half very slow, which was the back story being told by 12 characters - confusing and boring. The second half became compelling, much faster and in shorter chapters. Ponderous and very Victorian.
Characterisation: all seemed a bit analytical and cold. Didn't care much for any of them.
Overall: not signficant in terms of literary heritage, first half too much to get through for the better second half.

Did JT think it would make the Short List: hoped not, but thought it would.

The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann by Eve Harris reviewed by ET

Eve Harris born and brought up in London to Israeli Polish parents. Lived in Israel for 3 years, and taught in inner city comprehensives. Debut novel inspired by experience of teaching at an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish all girls' school in NW London.
Genre/plot: contemporary. Story of various different characters (3rd person) - 19 year old Chani, her betrothed, Baruch, the Rabi's wife, her son Avromi. Winds through different time periods. Themes of uncertainty over matched marriage, personal tragedy, difficulties of Ultra-Orthodox life and reservations to do with it.
Cover: bright. Gives nothing away.
Readability: compelling and eminently readable. Simply told, not a 'literary' book, which eases reading. Good length, easy to read in a day or two.
Characterisation: believable characters - fearful, humorous, fallible, and, ultimately, human. Cared about each and every character.
Overall: very enjoyable. Contemporary, relevant themes - learnt a lot about Orthodox Jews (the glossary helped!)

Did ET think it would make the Short List: no, as it isn't literary/high brow enough, but would recommend it anyway - brilliant story and cared about the characters.

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann reviewed by AB
Irish author, published lots of novels including 'Let the Great World Spin' which won lots of awards .
Genre/plot: historical novel - based on fact but with fictional characters woven in. Clever and well crafted book - almost too crafted/structured. Presents 3 different real stories from different eras - an emancipated slave coming from the USA to Ireland, the first flight from New Foundland to Cork, and the Irish Peace Process (Good Friday agreement and senator George Mitchell).
Cover: didn't like - why are the characters sitting in baby-swing-like-chairs? They all look early 20th century rather than the 3 eras the book covers.
Readability: the fictional characters and story didn't work for her - too fragmented and unclear. Loved the style and the language - sparce and short sentences at time and languid at others. Almost like petry with lovely imagery. Beautifully written langugage, and dialogue too.
Characterisation: more plot than characters, but well drawn.
Overall: tremendous crafting. All of the book group would like but in a relatively mild way.

Did AB think it would make the short list: yes.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin reviewed JG
Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist and poet, aged 58 and openly gay. Currently professor of humanities at Columbia University, grew up in Wexford and studied in Dublin.
Genre/plot: fictional account of Mary's view of the life of Jesus in first person, based on the gospels and implies that much of the gospels are fictional - a product of what the writers wanted to have happened, rather than an accurate historical account. Stream of conciousness with Mary reflecting on events leading up to the crucifixion, linking up the stories in the bible, the effects on her and subsequent attempts of the disciples to encourage her to contribute to writing the gospels.
Readability: very readable - so short she had no choice but to read it twice, just to be sure! Easy reading - an attempt to portray the real person rather than the iconic figure. Interesting use of metaphor.
Characterisation: sensitive, interesting and detailed. This Mary does not believe in her son's holiness - a marked contast to the usual portrayal of the saintly Virgin Mary. Disapproving of the willingness of his growing group of friends, who she believes to be a negative influence on him and willing to collude with the notion of him being the "Son of God." Also hints she thought the "miracles" were fake.
Overall: not significant, although a stimulating read.

Did JG think it would make the Short List: no.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri reviewed by NO ONE

This only came out on 8th September - so no one had time to read it! The question is, why did the publishers choose to publish it so close to the Short List announcement? Seems like they're missing out on a lot of sales... Anyway. No comments from the book group! Here's the summary from the Booker website:

From Subhash’s earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother’s sight.


As the two brothers grow older their lives, once so united, begin to diverge. It is 1967. Charismatic and impulsive, Udayan becomes increasingly drawn to the Communist movement sweeping West Bengal, the Naxalite cause. As revolution seizes the city’s student community and exams are boycotted in a shadow of Paris and Berkeley, their home is dominated by the absence of Udayan, out on the streets at demonstrations. Subhash wins a place on a PhD programme in the United States and moves to Rhode Island, never to live in India again – yet his life will be shaped from afar by his brother’s acts of passionate political idealism.


Udayan will give everything for what he believes and in doing so will transform the futures of those dearest to him: his newly married, pregnant wife, his brother and their parents. The repercussions of his actions will link their fates irrevocably and tragically together, reverberating across continents and seeping through the generations that follow.
So... for anyone who has made it this far, here is the Man Booker shortlist 2013:
We Need New Names
The Lowland
The Luminaries
The Testament of Mary
A Tale for the Time Being

Not exactly what the book group would have chosen! Oh well! Next stop: the Winscombe Man Booker event for announcing the winner, watch this space...

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto & Windus)
The Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)
- See more at:
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto & Windus)
The Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)
- See more at:


  1. Hi there E

    What a thorough review of our reviewing process! The only thing I would add about Five Star Billionaire is that it was not so much Eastern exoticism that intrigued but rather its insight into current Eastern lifestyle and career motivations - almost the antithesis of what we often think of as exotic.

    Loved your review of The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann. Another books providing insights into a very different world. So far I prefer TMoCK to FSB


  2. Thank you CN :) I will change that bit in your review. And, yes, I really enjoyed TMoCK although I could see it was never going to make the Short List.