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

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