Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blogging the Booker 8: The Long Song

Andrea Levy's The Long Song is a surprisingly snappy read, given that it deals with fairly weighty topics. The Long Song is a story of Jamaica at the end of the slavery era, and in the immediate aftermath of the British government's decision to free the slaves on the Carribean island.

A couple of years ago I read & enjoyed Levy's previous novel, Small Island, which also dealt with the relationship between Britain and its former colony, albeit at a later point in that history. So I was looking forward to The Long Song, but was still pleasantly surprised by how entertaining and interesting it was. Partly that's because I'm a bit of a sucker for post-colonial novels, but mostly it was due to Levy finding both an interesting (& under-fictionalised) time & place for her story, and a memorable set of characters.

I seem to be spending a fair bit of time in these reviews discussing narration, but the question is one of the core ones to the success of a novel, and it's one of the best elements of The Long Song. Our story is introduced by Thomas Kinsman, who tells us that his mother has a story to tell, & she agrees to tell it because he promises to make it into a book when she's finished. For the rest of the book, she tells us the life of July, a slave born into a sugar plantation, plucked from her mother at a young age and assigned to serve the lady of the house (the owner's widowed sister). From this perspective, our narrator (whose actually identity is not confirmed until more than 100 pages in) focuses on the events leading up to the freeing of Jamaican slaves, and the violence which followed. July becomes more entangled in the family's affairs, and Levy also makes the point that the difference between slavery & freedom is not always as great as we might hope - the Jamaican former slaves didn't all suddenly become happy & prosperous just because they were no longer slaves. Exploitation can adapt itself to new circumstances, as history has reminded us on many occasions.

Yet despite the oft-grim events & themes of The Long Song, our narrator's voice (she reminds us of her presence every few chapters, emphasising that this is her version of this story and that different versions exist) carries the book along at a constant clip. This novel has several virtues, but Levy's deft handling of the narrative voice is chief amongst those. The Long Song is another book I'm hoping will reach the Booker shortlist, and I think it's probably a strong contender for that, and perhaps even to win.

Next time: The Room, by Emma Donoghue.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Twilight Through The Ages

Those who have read my widely tolerated series (via Facebook) on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series will know that I had very little to say in praise of those books. The one thing I did think was worthwhile about them was the cover design, which we've certainly seen a lot of, but is nonetheless actually pretty striking.

However, for such recently published books, the Twilight series seems to have been published in more editions than the Bible. My assumption is that the publishers have seen an opportunity to get people to continually re-buy the same books, just so they can have every possible edition of their beloved story*.

First, we had the standard-issue hardcovers/softcovers, with the iconic covers:

Simple, direct, and not bad, particularly when compared to what was inside...

Next up, we had the same covers, but with 'Special Edition' plastered across the top of each:
The main difference with the Special Editions was that they had either the first chapter of the next book or - in the case of the copy of Twilight I read - a chunk of an apparently forthcoming version of the story told from Edward's point of view.

I'll give you all a moment to absorb the ramifications of that...

Next, and quite remarkably, we had the red-edged versions. Again, same covers, but the pages' edges (top, sides & bottoms) have been coloured red through some miracle technology:
It's worth noting that, for a while, the top ten books sold in Australia each week included both the standard paperbacks of the series and the red-edged editions. There were certainly quite a few weeks where different versions of these four books made up 70 or 80% of the top ten books sold in Australia. (I believe the other two were Dan Brown's latest and whatever thing James Patterson had most-recently signed his name to.)

There was, of course, also box-set releases of all of these editions once all four books had been published, collecting previously released books into a piece of flimsy cardboard.

By this point, of course, the movie versions were beginning to roll out. And if movie adaptations of popular books exist, can movie tie-in editions be far behind?


What's interesting about these editions - other than how bland the covers are, even by movie tie-in edition standards - is how relatively uncommon they were. The standard/special/red-edged editions of each book continued to be much prominently displayed in bookstores

and these tie-ins seem to have been released mostly to capture the re-buy market. They also came, as you might have noticed, with an Exclusive Poster Inside!, further implying that they were seen as a collectors' item, rather than as a normal way to buy the books. (Breaking Dawn is yet to come, of course.)

(By the way, that photo of a pile of Eclipses was taken by yours truly on his phone at Dymocks in Broadway back in February this year.)

At some point, I also noticed this little boxset release:
A set of journals, with blank pages inside the four book covers, all in a neat package. Presumably so that fans could write their own swooning fanfic. (On that note: Stephenie Meyer may be the first person to write her own fanfic. Also, how great would it be to read any of my genre revisitations of Breaking Dawn in one of those notebooks?)

But the latest editions - and the inspiration for this post - are possibly the strangest:

How awful do those look? Breaking Dawn in particular has been completely ruined, but they're all vastly inferior to the original black versions. (Although, I do give them a little credit for the choice to remove all text from the front cover. That works well here, because the existing images are so well-known.)

Speaking of ruining things, other publishers also tried to capitalise on the Twi-session sweeping the world, with this remarkable piece of horror:

Clearly, the only way to shift a few copies of Emily Bronte's little-known and mostly-forgotten novel Wuthering Heights was to do a cheap knock-off of the Twilight books & plaster 'Bella & Edward's Favourite Book' across the cover.

On that cheery note...

* Full disclosure: there are several books which I own in multiple editions, simply because I liked a re-release. Penguin in particular are very good at repackaging their catalogue in irresistible new editions. So I understand the psychology, to an extent. But I would point out that, while I've done this for a handful of books, they're all approximately 800 millions times better, in both content & design, than Twilight.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Blogging the Booker 7: C

Tom McCarthy's first novel, Remainder, was published a few years ago to great acclaim. Zadie Smith, a favourite of mine, described it as 'one of the great English novels of the past ten years'. I personally liked it, but also thought that level of praise was a bit over-the-top - it was an interesting novel, but perhaps because I read it well after all the hype pushed it to 'instant classic/future of the novel' status, found it a little underwhelming.

So I approached C with a mixture of interest & trepidation - interest to see what this talented young author would do, and trepidation that again I would miss the point of it. And, to be honest, I found C a bit of a mixed bag. Parts of it bored me & proved to be difficult to really get into, and other parts I thought worked really well.

C is the story of Serge Carrefax, born at the turn of the 18th century in England. The first (of four) sections follows his childhood and youth, focusing particularly on his father (a pioneer in radio/telegraph transmissions, and the founder of a school for deaf mutes) and his older sister (a talented scientist herself as a teenager). The second section jumps forward a couple of years from the end of the first, as Serge becomes a radio operator in fighter planes during the first World War. After the war ends, section three is about post-war London, in which Serge is an architecture student who also meets a girl, cultivates his army-initiated drug habit, and investigates a medium claiming to connect people with their sons/brothers who died in the war. As this section ends, Serge is offered a job in Egypt, working on England's attempts to establish a radio network.

The first section I found mostly interesting, if occasionally quite slow, and the second I never really got into. Admittedly there has been other things going on in the last week or so, but I still found myself really struggling to maintain interest in C - either not reading it at all on some days, or reading a few pages before putting it down to do something else. I'll be the first to admit that this is perhaps my fault and not McCarthy's, but nonetheless, the first two sections of C had me convinced that I'd struggle to finish it. However, the third section is wonderfully well-done, and gave me the impetus to continue. (The final section is also quite good - not as much as the third, but better than what had come earlier.)

So, as I say, I have quite mixed feelings about C. I still think the third section works very well, and could almost stand as a long-ish short story on its own, and the first & last also had their moments. But overall I can't really say that I hope C proceeds any further in the Booker prize. (I also can't help thinking that 'Serge' is a bit too obvious a name for the protagonist of a novel that is largely concerned with electricity & radio...)

(Oh, one final thing: C does have, in my opinion, the coolest cover of the books I've read from this list so far. The cover itself is black with white dots and the big letter 'C'; the dustjacket overlay is clear, and includes all the swirls & the author's name you can see above. Very cool.)

Next up: Andrea Levy's The Long Song.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Blogging the Booker 6: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

A confession to begin: David Mitchell is one of my favourite living authors. I have loved each of his novels to date, and think he is one of the most talented & interesting authors writing in the English language so far this century. So I approached his latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, with a fair degree of anticipation, and am perhaps not the most objective reviewer of this book.

(But, that said, subjectivity is good when reviewing things.)

Mitchell's first three novels - Ghostwritten, Number 9 Dream & Cloud Atlas - were highly formal works, with complex uses of form. Cloud Atlas really reached the zenith of that style, in a way - told in six voices, with each section reflecting back on the one before it, so that the diary which formed the first part was read by a character narrating the second, and so on. And then halfway through, the book reversed upon itself, working backwards in time through the six sections again. Each of the sections stood up on its own, but the combination of them all was a thrillingly eye-opening experience.

Anyway, this review is not about Cloud Atlas. The book that followed it, and preceeded this one, Black Swan Green, was still episodic in nature but also signalled a more personal approach for Mitchell. And with Thousand Autumns..., formal experimentation takes a definite backseat to character.

Set in Japan at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th century, Thousand Autumns... explores the relatively unknown world of the first Europeans to have significant contact with the Japanese. At a time when Japan was incredibly isolated from the rest of the world, the limits of their outside contact was via a small island, Dejima, off the coast at Nagasaki. The Dutch traders are allowed only on the island, not onto the mainland itself, and much of Thousand Autumns... is about the somewhat-strained relations between the two cultures.

Our protagonist is Jacob de Zoet, a promising young clerk sent to Dejima to investigate allegations of corruption amongst the senior Dutch merchants. This, of course, does not make him popular with his countrymen, but he remains dedicated to the task while also forming links with Japanese translators and officials. In the novel's second section, the scope widens and Jacob receeds into the background as other characters' stories are told, but then the focus returns to Jacob in the final sections, while retaining other perspectives (& introducing new ones - Mitchell hasn't completely abandoned the multiple-narrator style that characterised Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas). The second and subsequent sections explore a mysterious convent in the country and its relationship with what goes on in the trading town. As seems to be a theme of this year's Booker longlist, narration is omniscient third-person, and different sections/chapters are told from the perspective of different characters.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has an intricate plot, and I don't really want to say too much more about that. I will say, however, that even given my high expectations and hopes, I loved this novel. It may not have the breath-taking pyrotechnics of Cloud Atlas, but in it's own quieter way, it's just as impressive a novel.

Mitchell has now been long- or short-listed for each of his novels. I fully expect Thousand Autumns... to make the shortlist, and am hoping that this can be the one for which he finally wins.

Next: Tom McCarthy's C, which I started reading this morning.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Blogging the Booker 5: Skippy Dies

Skippy Dies is a difficult book to categorise. It's a boarding school novel, it's a comedy, it's a tragedy, it's a reflection on the ways in which all lives and all stories intersect and affect each other.

It's also very good.

Paul Murray's second novel revolves around the Seabrook College for Boys in Dublin. There's a large cast of characters, including Daniel 'Skippy' Juster, his friend & room-mate Ruprecht Van Doren, their History teacher Howard 'The Coward' Fallon, object of Skippy's affection Lori (from the girls' school next door) & school bully/drug-dealer Carl. There are more, of course, in this well-populated novel, but those are the ones whose perspective we see the most.

(Like The Slap, Skippy Dies is told by an omniscient third-person narrator, but rather than presenting the different POVs one after the other, short chapters jump from one to another throughout. The narrative voice, despite being third-person, does change noticeably depending on whose chapter it is, particularly in the cases of Lori and Carl.)

Anyway, a novel called Skippy Dies features a lead character called Skippy, so there's at least one thing you know going in. Murray takes care of that by having the death scene as a prologue to the rest of the book, and then steps back in time to how & why we got there. Skippy and Ruprechet are unusual students - the latter in particular, an enormously fat genius interested in string theory and the idea that our dimension is merely one of eleven. The pair of them, and their larger circle of friends, spend most of the first two-thirds of the book worrying about the sorts of things all teenage boys do: school, girls, parents, theoretical physics. Skippy is fascinated with Lori, who is in turn attracted to the dangerous (& probably psychopathic) Carl.

Meanwhile, Howard, a former student at Seabrook who has returned there as a teacher (somewhat against his will), is also struggling to get his life in order. Stuck in a relationship that bores him, and wondering what the point of his life is, he tries to make History interesting for the boys. In doing so, he discusses one of the major themes of Skippy Dies - that history as written in textbooks is only one version of any given set of events, and that observing the same events from a different perspective is bound to give an entirely different story. (The example he uses is the First World War, which Ireland has largely written out of its own history, but also pointing out that histories which reflect the war's geopolitical purposes ignore the stories of the young men actually doing the fighting.)

Murray makes this theme not just his character's philosophy, but also the structure of the book as a whole. By switching between the different characters every few pages, we gain a better understanding of each of them - a gradual reveal of not just plot & character, but also some larger points about history and people's lives.

Skippy Dies is an intriguing book. It's fairly long (660 pages in paperback), but moves quickly throughout. The changing character POV is an effective technique not just for the reason I've just discussed, but also in terms of pacing - by constantly cutting between characters, we're always tempted to read just a little bit more to see whose chapter comes up next. Murray has a fine ear for dialogue, particularly that of his teenage characters, and maintains a light touch even in the book's tragic sections (of which there are several).

The Booker Prize has not traditionally had much time for 'comic' novels, and I do wonder whether an ostensibly comic novel set in a school is a likely winner. I do hope (at this point in my reading, anyway!) that Skippy Dies makes it through to the shortlist at least, since I think it's worthy of a wide audience. Even if it goes no further, I'm glad I had it brought to my attention.

Next up: David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Penguin's Great Ideas Series Five

One of my favourite things that Penguin does is their collections of little books in a set - Great Loves, Great Journeys etc. The best of them (& they clearly agree with me here) is the Great Ideas series, of which the fifth set of 20 is about to be published. The Great Ideas books are small (a little over 100 pages, in most cases), relatively cheap (<$10) books, offering a variety of essays from some of the great minds of all time. And, best of all, they are beautifully designed...

And one of my favourite things that the Book Depository does is offer half-price pre-orders on most books. So, over the last couple of months, I've pre-ordered the bulk of the new set in dribs and drabs. For about four bucks a pop! Thus, sometime after late August, I'll get a whole stack of gorgeous little books containing interesting little essays - some from writers I've never heard of before, some from authors I've always meant to get to, and a couple from some old favourites.

Here are some of my favourite designs from the forthcoming fifth series:
(Better quality photos are available on the Flickr page of series designer David Pearson, who's one of my favourite book designers. Go look! They really give a good idea of the tactile nature of these books, which are all debossed and lovely to touch.)

Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, George Eliot

On Conspiracies, Niccolo Machiavelli

Some Extraordinary Popular Delusions, Charles Mackay

We Will All Go Down Fighting to the End, Winston Churchill

Of Human Freedom, Epictetus

Nationalism, Rabindranath Tagore

The Perpetual Race of Achillies and the Tortoise, Jorge Luis Borges

The State as a Work of Art, Jacob Burckhardt

Night Walks, Charles Dickens

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, George Orwell

Pretty great, in my opinion. And that's before you even open them!

What's your favourite? I think the Churchill and Orwell ones are mine - in fact, I already own a book that contains all of the pieces included in the Orwell, and am just buying that particular one for the cover.

(Yeah, I know it's sad. But it was about $4.20, so I can live with the shame.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Blogging the Booker 4: Parrot and Olivier in America

Parrot and Olivier in America is Peter Carey's eleventh novel, and the eleventh of his I've read. So, yes, I'm a fan*. But it's a curious sort of fandom, in that I always buy his books when they're new, read them & usually enjoy them, but wouldn't instantly think of Carey as one of my favourite authors or anything. A couple of his novels I've not particularly cared for, and several others I've loved. Yet I'm always happy to see him release a new book every few years...

Anyway, Parrot & Olivier... came out ages ago in Australia (October or November last year, if memory serves). And while that might not sound that long ago in the grand scheme of things, it makes it slightly harder to review than The Slap, which I finished reading a couple of hours before I wrote that review.

To begin with the basics: the titular characters are, respectively, a middle-aged servant/general lackey and an aristocratic young Frenchmen. Set during the period of the French Revolution, Olivier is sent by his family to the US to avoid the grisly fate of aristocrats during revolutionary times. They send the family servant, Parrot (who is English, by the way) to accompany him.

Once in America, the pair encounter all that the New World has to offer. There's a love triangle, of sorts, and a whole cast of amusing characters. This is definitely Carey in picaresque mode, with a significant component of Alexis de Tocqueville thrown in for fun.

After the somewhat disappointing His Illegal Self, Parrot & Olivier... is a return to form for Carey. Like with several others of his best (in my opinion) latter-day books - Theft, True History of the Kelly Gang - Carey is at his best with larger-than-life characters and subversions of literary genres (although I thought his Frankenstein-meets-Ern-Malley book, My Life as a Fake, slightly underwhelming for its wonderful premise - but perhaps a re-reading is in order).

I realise I've started with the two books by Australian authors on this year's longlist, but that's mostly unintentional (& has a lot to do with availability). Parrot & Olivier... is of course not an 'Australian' book as such - certainly not in the way The Slap is -, and Carey is one of a small group to win the Booker Prize twice (for Oscar & Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang). That said, I'd be surprised if this book was the one that allowed him to become the first to win it three times. It's another solid outing from one of the most respected literary authors of our era, but probably isn't exciting enough to win him the Booker. (Not that recent winners have been all that exciting, but they've all been first-time winners. If you've already won a few times, I suspect you have to do more to win again than you would if your previous winners had been shortlisted but not winners.)

And it matters less with Carey anyway. I'm sure he'd be chuffed to win again, and I sure wouldn't be upset or anything, but this book is going to sell well enough either way, and his reputation is assured. In recent years, while I've not liked the winners of the Booker all that much, it's been good to get to know some new (to me) authors via long/short lists.

Speaking of which: next will be either David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, depending on when I finish the latter.

* Not that numbers always tell the whole story: I have, for instance, read 60% of Stephenie Meyer's published novels; considerably more than some authors whom I actually don't hate.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Blogging the Booker 3: The Slap

(Slight change of plans here: having just finished Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, I thought I'd review it now, while it's still fresh in my mind. Parrot & Olivier in America will come later in the week.)

The Slap
is the first Christos Tsolkias novel I have read, and going into it I didn't know much of what to expect. I knew the basic outline (a group of friends are having a bbq, one father slaps someone else's son, reverberations ensue), but that was about it. From the back-cover blurb, I further learned that the book is also concerned with many of the Big Issues facing modern Australia. And, indeed, that's a significant theme of The Slap, in that our cast of characters come from a diverse range of ethnicities, classes & religions (interestingly, politics as it is most often understood - parliamentary party politics - is barely a theme at all, which is perhaps an accurate reflection of average Australians). In that sense, The Slap can be seen as a novel in the style of the modernists of the 19th century, in which people did discuss society and its problems.
The Slap is told from the perspective of eight people, all of whom were present at the bbq in question. The first is Hector, host of the party, and throughout the book we also hear from the slapper (as it were), the slappee's mother, and various other members of the party (six adults, two teenagers, none of the children). Each section is narrated from the person's POV, in omniscient third-person, meaning that we get to enter their minds and contrast their thoughts with their speech. The chapters are presented chronologically, meaning that we don't see the same events narrated from different people's points of view, but that each section pushes the story further along. (That said, we do get some flashbacks/character reflections, filling in some of the gaps.)

One thing that becomes clear fairly quickly is that those who have problems with books in which the characters are unlikeable will probably not find much here to grasp on to. Not many of the characters are completely unsympathetic, but there's also a fair bit of ugliness here. Most of the characters in relationships are unfaithful at some point (in desires if not in actual deed), most of the men are aggressive and/or violent towards the women and regular drunkeness/drug use is pretty much a given for everyone. These are all outworkings of inner turmoil, so happy characters are pretty few & far between in The Slap's world.

Despite the big themes and unflattering version of modern Australia Tsiolkas presents, it is to his credit that he gets most of the dialogue pretty right - it never sounds forced or wooden, and despite The Slap's length (nearly 500 pages), it is actually a pretty quick read. It may not make you feel particularly happy, but there is something captivating about the world Tsiolkas presents. I do have some slight quibbles - first, that I never quite got over the thought that the cast of characters was just a bit too contrived. I realise that it was a fairly big bbq that Hector and Aisha were throwing, and that their different backgrounds (him Greek, her Indian) would naturally increase the diversity of their social circle. But, still, it did seem a little as if any ethnic/religious group that's present in any numbers in Melbourne had a representative at the party. And while most of the chapters worked well, there was one that I thought a little too tangential to the main story. Broadening of scope is fine, but for most of the chapter I wondered why we were all of a sudden reading about a minor character's interactions with an entirely separate set of characters.

Overall, I suspect The Slap is probably too much of a state-of-modern-Australia novel to win the Booker Prize. Tsiolkas's prose is clear & unfussy, but certainly not beautiful (as I already noted, he has a fine talent for dialogue - poorly-rendered speech would've sunk this book). I enjoyed it (for a given value of 'enjoyed'), but I'd be surprised if it made its way onto the shortlist, let alone became the winner.

Next: Peter Carey's Parrot & Olivier in America.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Blogging the Booker 2: Overview of the 2010 longlist

In this post, I'll quickly note what I know about each of the longlisted titles, and also outline my plan for the first few reviews...

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America

This came out in Australia ages ago, and I read it then. Will be the first book reviewed - stay tuned!

Emma Donoghue Room

I had never heard of either author or book previously, but have read some good reviews. Have it ordered from the good folk at The Book Depository, so hope to read & review it soon-ish.

Helen Dunmore The Betrayal

I believe this one is a sequel, or part of a series or something. That makes me less keen to read it, since I've (obviously) not read the book/s before it.

Damon Galgut In a Strange Room

Know nothing about it. Will track down some reviews.

Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question

Another one I don't know much about, but apparently it's a comic novel. That could be promising.

Andrea Levy The Long Song

I read - & enjoyed - her previous book, Small Island, a few years ago. Will get to this at some point.

Tom McCarthy C

In the same order as Room, so another one I should be able to read/review soon. I enjoyed his first book, Remainder, although I didn't think it was the greatest thing ever, as some others did. Apparently this one is quite different - set in the early 20th century, I believe. (Sorry, Angie, but at least you're warned!)

David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

One of my favourite living authors, as mentioned in the previous post. I read this a couple of months ago, and loved it.

Lisa Moore February

Don't know anything about it.

Paul Murray Skippy Dies

This one sounds interesting - a comic boarding-school novel, that's so far been reviewed quite well. I just picked up a copy from the local library, so will get to it soon too. (It's pretty long, though.)

Rose Tremain Trespass

Know nothing about it.

Christos Tsiolkas The Slap

Quite the rage a little while ago here in Australia, but it passed me by. That said, have just got it from the library as well.

Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky

Another one that is a blank slate for me.

Okay, so. I've read two already, have two sitting near me courtesy of middle-class welfare, and another two on their way to me. That's a good start. The shortlist is announced on 7 September, and the winner on 12 October.

Expect a review of the Carey early next week, and the Mitchell later in the week. By that point, I hope to have also read one of the others from today's library visit.

Onwards & upwards! I look forward to doing this, but also hope that you, dear readers, chip in in the comments section...

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Blogging the Booker 1: Some notes on recent Booker shortlists redux

I recently decided that I would try to read as many of the 13 books longlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize for Fiction, and review them here for my fanbase*. I totally stole this idea off The Guardian, who did this a few years ago but don't seem to anymore. And I thought it might be fun to step into that gap!

To kick this process off, I reproduce here a note I posted in September last year (when that year's shortlist was announced), quickly going over the previous few years' shortlists, noting which books I'd read, which I hadn't but had formed opinions about regardless, and some that I'd never even heard of. But to bring this up to date, I've added in a consideration of the (fairly underwhelming) 2009 shortlist.

For all its faults, the Booker is probably the most interesting - & is certainly the most-discussed - literature prize in the English-language world, so most years I make a bit of an effort to read some of the shortlist. (For each year, the eventual winner is listed first, because I copied these from Wikipedia, and that's how they're done there...)

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Hmmm. Now that I look at this list, the winners & I haven't got along terribly well for the last few years - one I never even tried, one I gave up on, and a couple I thought were okay but hardly spectacular. Wolf Hall fits into the third of those categories. Historical fiction is always a dicey prospect, really - you've got to make it interesting & comprehensible for people who don't know much about the period, while not patronising those who do. And Mantel mostly achieves that, but at the cost of, well, not actually producing a very good novel. It's not awful, but all I really got out of Wolf Hall was a better (which is to say, any) knowledge of the period it's about (Thomas Cromwell & Henry VIII). Reasonably written, it just didn't do much for me.

AS Byatt, The Children's Book
Years ago, I read & hated Possession, and have not attempted an AS Byatt novel since, despite the number of people who tell me I was wrong. Perhaps I was, but either way, I don't really plan to check. Others thought this good, though, I know.

JM Coetzee, Summertime
Coetzee is an author I sorta half-wish I cared more about. I've read a few of his, liked some, tolerated the rest, but never get excited about reading any more of his. If I were stuck somewhere with this book, I'd read it & probably enjoy it well enough, but until that happens, I'm afraid it's passing me by.

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze
This was a book (& author) I knew nothing about, but some reviews I read made it sound pretty tedious. So I skipped it.

Simon Mawer, The Glass Room
Quite enjoyed this, even if it is (sigh) another damn WWII novel. But it was an interesting take on the topic, and very nicely written. Not the sort of thing I've been shoving into people's hands ever since I read it, but it was pretty good. The pick of a pretty poor shortlist, in my opinion.

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger

I've never read a Sarah Waters novel, and to be honest they usually don't sound like my cup of tea. That said, I've read some very positive reviews of this one, so perhaps I should give it a go sometime.

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
Not bad, though I don't think that it's really up to the standard of some previous winners. An interesting enough story, and well-written, but it did all feel a bit contrived at times.

Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
Haven't read it, but I enjoyed his previous book (see 2006).

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies
(Haven't read)

Linda Grant, The Clothes on Their Backs

Philip Hensher, The Northern Clemency
(ditto, this one is very long, and got pretty mixed reviews)

Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
Very good, occasionally excellent. Probably a little too long in the end, a product of typical First-Novel-Cram-Everything-In Syndrome, but nonetheless hilarious. Some wonderful turns of phrase, and an interesting story.

Anne Enright, The Gathering
Could never bring myself to read this one - it sounds too much like Booker-By-Numbers from the reviews I've read.

Nicola Barker, Darkmans
Hilarious, one of my favourite novels of recent years. Long, dense, occasionally confusing, but off the back of this book I've been working my way through Barker's back-catalogue. Shoulda won.

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
This one was actually really poorly reviewed overall, as I recall, but seemed to make it onto the list because of its topicality or something. Didn't read it.

Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip
Not bad. I didn't think it was as great as a lot of others did, but it was certainly worth a read. And probably better if you're a Dickens fan (it's quite focused on Great Expectations).

Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
Didn't read it. Have difficult relationship with McEwan, read mixed reviews of this, and my usually-reliable friend Emma hated it.

Indra Sinha, Animal's People
I liked this one a lot. If 'Darkmans' couldn't have won, this would've been my choice from this list.

(Incidentally, one truly great book made 2007's long- but not short-list: What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn. At least as good as most of the shortlist, and deserved to be there.)

Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
Short, but I gave up halfway through anyway. Just DID NOT CARE about anything in it. (A few others I've spoken to felt the same, incidentally.) It felt like it wanted the heft of a 500-600 page sprawling novel, but in the space of only about half that. Which meant that, to the point where I gave up, none of it was very engaging.

Kate Grenville, The Secret River
Never read it, no opinion.

M. J. Hyland, Carry Me Down
Pretty good but not great, I think. Entertaining enough, but seemed a bit too much like a few other books, in my humble.

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men
Never read.

Edward St Aubyn, Mother's Milk

Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

2005 (the year Angie & I read the whole shortlist)
John Banville, The Sea
I really liked this. Yes, it's privileged white man with mid-late life reflections etc, so I understand the criticisms, but it's beautifully written.

Julian Barnes, Arthur & George
Barnes is an author I've never really liked as much as other people do. But this one was very entertaining, and having just finished re-reading the entire Sherlock Holmes canon, I should give this one another go ('Arthur' of the title is Conan Doyle, the book is a fictionalised account of part of his life, where he was involved in a murder case).

Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way
A war novel! But, actually, a good one. WWI, but from an Irish perspective, which gives it a little novelty at least. Nicely written.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
I always thought this one was a little over-rated, but Ishiguro is a very talented writer. My problem here was that I thought he tried to create suspense about something that I figured out very early on. The ideas were interesting though.

Ali Smith, The Accidental
Very good, and one of the more difficult short-listed books of recent years. I've read a few of hers since this one, and enjoyed them all too.

Zadie Smith, On Beauty
I loved White Teeth, thought The Autograph Man was under-cooked, and wasn't sure how this one - Smith's third novel - would go. And, it's actually fantastic. This was a very strong year, I think, but if The Sea hadn't won, this would've been my choice.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
Well-written, and probably a worthy winner. Certainly it gave me an insight into a world I don't know at all (upper-class young gay London of the 1980s).

Achmat Dangor, Bitter Fruit
No idea. Don't even remember this one until I just saw it listed. Haven't read it, obviously.

Sarah Hall, The Electric Michelangelo
No opinion, though I've since read her 2009 longlisted How to paint a dead man. Which was distinctly okay.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Another favourite of recent years. Brilliant intertwining of five or six completely different stories, each of which is written in a completely different style. I'd not heard of David Mitchell until this book, and he's now one of my favourite contemporary novelists.

Colm Tóibín, The Master
See 'Mister Pip', in a way. This is all about Henry James, about whom I know nothing. But it was still interesting, which is a credit to the author.

Gerard Woodward, I'll Go to Bed at Noon
Eh. No knowledge of this at all.

* That's a 'Flight of the Conchords' reference