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Booker Prize Challenge 2013

The Book People always do a great value collection of the Booker Prize shortlist. My books arrived on Saturday 21st September and I set myself of having them all read by the announcement on Tuesday 15th October.

Update: I haven’t finished this challenge, the 800+ pages of The Luminaries have conspired against me so I’m publishing this post ahead of Tuesday’s announcement but I will update when I have completed the challenge proper.

This year, more than previous years, the shortlist excited me. It seemed a genuinely good mix of genres, cultures and authors both experienced an new to the scene. There wasn’t a book on the list I wasn’t looking forward to getting stuck into so this made the challenge all the more bearable. Below are my reviews of the 6 shortlisted titles and at the foot of the post I’ve ranked the books and awarded the Radders Booker Prize which I’m sure is much much less lucrative than the real deal! Reviews are listed in the order of reading.

Book One: A Tale For The Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

Author’s Nationality: American
Pages: 400
The Blurb: Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.’ Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of her beach home. Within it lies a diary that expresses the hopes and dreams of a young girl. She suspects it might have arrived on a drift of debris from the 2011 tsunami. With every turn of the page, she is sucked deeper into an enchanting mystery. In a small cafe in Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao Yasutani is navigating the challenges thrown up by modern life. In the face of cyberbullying, the mysteries of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun and great-grandmother, and the joy and heartbreak of family, Nao is trying to find her own place – and voice – through a diary she hopes will find a reader and friend who finally understands her. Weaving across continents and decades, and exploring the relationship between reader and writer, fact and fiction, A Tale for the Time Being is an extraordinary novel about our shared humanity and the search for home..
My Review: I adored this book. The characterisation was strong in both the lead characters; Ruth and Nao as well as more peripheral characters such as Ruth’s husband and Nai’s great grandmother. The lead characters take alternate sections throughout the book and both develop a strong “voice” through which they narrate their stories. I detected hints of Murakami (but don’t let that put you off if you’re not a Haruki fan; this is by no means that level of surreal). I became utterly lost in this story; it felt real and it had me reading on furiously with a feeling of impending heartbreak throughout. A novel that’s really hard to describe; part diary, part mystery told through the voices of a Japanese teenager and a 30-something American it spans continents, generations and time. One of those books you finish and just sit staring at the last page, utterly overwhelmed by its perfection.
Parting thoughts: Must add Ruth Ozeki’s back catalogue to my to-read list!
Score (out of 5) 5

Book Two: The Testament of Mary – Colm Toíbín

Author’s Nationality: Irish
Pages: 112
The Blurb:Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is the moving story of the Virgin Mary, told by a novelist famous for writing brilliantly about the family.
From the author of Brooklyn, in a voice that is both tender and filled with rage, The Testament of Mary tells the story of a cataclysmic event which led to an overpowering grief. For Mary, her son has been lost to the world, and now, living in exile and in fear, she tries to piece together the memories of the events that led to her son’s brutal death. To her he was a vulnerable figure, surrounded by men who could not be trusted, living in a time of turmoil and change.
As her life and her suffering begin to acquire the resonance of myth, Mary struggles to break the silence surrounding what she knows to have happened. In her effort to tell the truth in all its gnarled complexity, she slowly emerges as a figure of immense moral stature as well as a woman from history rendered now as fully human.

My Review: A novel I would never pick up through choice, being a non-believer the religious aspect would have certainly not endeared me to this novel. However, having read the blurb I was intrigued as to how Toíbín had handled the famous biblical story from Mary’s point of view. This is a short book but “feels” the right length for the subject matter. Let’s start with the positives; I liked the writing style, almost poetic. However, it quickly became apparent that something wasn’t sitting right with me in terms if the characterisation. I couldn’t get along at all with the voice that had been attributed to Mary. It was much more the voice of a modern woman than what you would expect. Maybe this was Toíbín’s intention but for me it just didn’t work. I couldn’t connect at all with Mary’s character who just seemed cold and uninspiring. An interesting premise to tell this familiar story from an unfamiliar viewpoint but for me this fell short.
Parting thoughts: Daring and interesting concept, beautiful writing style, wrong voice.
Score (out of 5) 2

Book Three: We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

Author’s Nationality: Zimbabwean
Pages: 304
The Blurb: ‘To play the country-game, we have to choose a country. Everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and them. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?’ Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn’t all bad, though. There’s mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices. They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges – for her and also for those she’s left behind.
My Review: A story of migration with a pitch perfect adolescent voice. Darling’s narrative is lovely; fresh and innocent. Captures beautifully the contrast between African and American life. Reads like an autobiography rather than fiction, utterly believable. Some chapters felt weaker than others, hence why I’ve not rated it a 4. On the whole, though, a bright, vibrant, descriptive novel; much like its lovely cover art.
Parting thoughts: There’s probably better African literature out there but a good read nevertheless.
Score (out of 5) 3.5

Book Four: Harvest – Jim Crace

Author’s Nationality: British
Pages: 320
The Blurb: As late summer steals in and the final pearls of barley are gleaned, a village comes under threat. A trio of outsiders – two men and a dangerously magnetic woman – arrives on the woodland borders and puts up a make-shift camp. That same night, the local manor house is set on fire. Over the course of seven days, Walter Thirsk sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbours held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it . . . Told in Jim Crace’s hypnotic prose, Harvest evokes the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed. Timeless yet singular, mythical yet deeply personal, this beautiful novel of one man and his unnamed village speaks for a way of life lost for ever.
My Review: I was so looking forward to reading this novel from the blurb but it left me sadly wanting. I found the story (if there was actually one!) dragged and led to me speed reading to get to the end and be able to move on to something else. The prose is good but there is pretty much no plot here whatsoever. Short of the narrator, other characters feel underdeveloped and I struggled throughout to care or connect with them. Feels like this has been shortlisted based on the merits of its descriptive writing, which is strong but without a sufficient plot it failed to maintain my interest.
Parting thoughts: I’ll never get those hours back…
Score (out of 5) 2.5

Book Five: The Lowland – Jhumpa Lihiri

Author’s Nationality: British
Pages: 352
The Blurb: 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. So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass – as U.S tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India – their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will upend their lives. Udayan – charismatic and impulsive – finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. He will give everything, risk all, 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. For all of them, the repercussions of his actions will reverberate across continents and seep through the generations that follow. Epic in its canvas and intimate in its portrayal of lives undone and forged anew, The Lowland is a deeply felt novel of family ties that entangle and fray in ways unforeseen and unrevealed, of ties that ineluctably define who we are. With all the hallmarks of Jhumpa Lahiri’s achingly poignant, exquisitely empathetic story-telling, this is her most devastating work of fiction to date.
My Review: This is a great book. The prose evokes all your senses and you feel like you are actually in India. Vivid, descriptive language sucks you into the book from the offset and after that its impossible to put down. The characterisation is strong and the plot is engaging. As I read it felt almost like a true story, which it turns out it almost is (as Lihiri explains in this podcast). There is very much a multi-layered plot here; politics, love, loss, kindness, cruelty, migration, parenting. This book absolutely engrossed me from start to finish. Chapters alternate in their narration between different characters, so you feel like you connect with, and understand, the characters as individuals. I particularly loved the character of Subhash; honourable, loving and caring. I loved the final chapter which gave the closing “story” to Udayan who had been absent for quite a hefty chunk of the book.
Parting thoughts: Feeling a little bereft. Will definitely seek out more of Lihiri’s work
Score (out of 5) 4.5

Book Six: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Author’s Nationality: New Zealand
Pages: 832
The Blurb:It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid-20s, and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.
My Review (so far): This is a humongous book. To the extend that it’s impossible to find a comfortable reading position for this hefty tome. I’m about 200 pages in so far and I’m enjoying. The prose has a good rhythm and as such it’s easy to “get into”. So far the plot is developing into a strong story full of mystery. There’s no doubting the technical prowess of the prose here, this is an incredibly well written novel. The narrative is written in a 19th century style and I’m not sure how this sits with me as yet. There are lots of characters so I’m struggling a little to keep up with who everyone is (there is a character map to help with this). Finding the characterisation a little weak so far; I haven’t a strong reaction to any of them (although this might be part of building up the mystery element of the story). It does feel a little overcomplicated on the whole; both in terms of number of characters and in terms of excessive detail in the prose. I’m definitely invested in the story, though and finding out where it goes.
Parting thoughts: To be updated…
Score (out of 5) A provisional 4

*subject to change when I actually finish…

1. A Tale For The Time Being
2. Lowland
3. We Need New Names
4. The Luminaries (probably)
5. Harvest
6. The Testament of Mary

So, in my humble opinion, Ozeki should walk away with this one but it’s rare my opinion correlates with that of the judges! Catton is favourite to win but I predict a unexpected Lihiri win…we shall see on Tuesday.


One comment on “Booker Prize Challenge 2013

  1. Pingback: Books: August to October | Radders

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