September 2013 will go down in history in the BookerTalk household. It’s the first time since I started reading the Booker Prize listed titles, that I read only Booker nominees. Nothing from my Classics Club list, nothing from my World of Literature challenge list, nothing from my TBR mountain (will it ever get any smaller???).
It wasn’t planned that way. I’m not one of those people brave enough to embark on reading all the longlisted titles as soon as they are announced. Nor even brave enough to attempt to read all shortlisted titles before the final. I could do it if there wasn’t the inconvenient matter of having to go to work each day which does rather cut into ones reading time. There is also the rather practical issue that these are titles are all in hardback so it gets expensive to buy the lot.
So I threw myself on the mercy of the local library and requested whatever they had thought to acquire – and as I said in an earlier Sunday Salon post, they all came into stock more or less the same time so had to be ready pretty quickly.
Which is how I spent September reading four Booker nominees and starting a fifth. In no particular order, I read
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore was a thoroughly enjoyable novel from the 2012 shortlist that I never got around to reading last year. I remember hearing the synopsis and thinking that a whole novel about a man walking to a lighthouse didn’t exactly sound wonderful. How wrong I was.
Conversely, I’d heard such good things about Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, one of the 2013 longlisted titles that I felt sure I would enjoy it. Sadly I did but only in part – or to be more precise I enjoyed only the first half. The remaining 200 plus pages were disappointingly ‘just ok’. I can understand why it never made it onto the shortlist.
Likewise, my third read, Unexploded by Alison MacLeod, didn’t move from longlist to shortlist status this year. This is a novel set in the seaside resort of Brighton in the first year of World War 2 when Britain is gripped by a fear that they will be invaded by Hilter’s forces any day. MacLeod looks at the repercussions of the war at a very human level, focusing on just one couple and how the conflict ignites elements in their marriage that have simmered for years. She does a wonderful job of re-creating the confusing atmosphere of dread and excitement. Well worth reading though, again, I didn’t think it was shortlist calibre.
Which brings me to the cream of the crop —the novel that turns out to be the bookmaker’s favourite for the prize, Jim Crace’s Harvest. I can’t compare it to the other nominees since I haven’t read any of those but should Crace walk off with the prize then he will have richly deserved the accolade. It’s set in an un-named village in rural England at an unspecified date but likely to be fifteenth century. This is a community whose way of life is under threat from an absentee landlord who believes the future lies in sheep not arable farming and if that means a few dozen families lose their livelihoods and their homes, well tough luck. This green and pleasant land is further threatened by some ominous newcomers who have come to claim their rights of settlement. There is drama but the power of the novel lies more in the way Crace gets you to reflect on the past and on the question of the ability of humans to endure change.
This is one of the best novels I have read yet this year.
So now September is over, what lies ahead in October? I’ve started reading another Booker longlisted title – TransAtlantic – Colum McCann’s first novel following his National Book Award success with Let the Great World Spin. Very shortly I shall be relinquishing contemporary fiction for some older texts as I start preparing for the Plagues, Witches and War course on historical fiction delivered via Coursera. The course will be looking at historical novels from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, some classic, others less well known. It looks as if its going to go at a very fast pace so for the next 8 weeks I won’t have much time to spare on anything other than historical fiction.
It”s that time of the year when newspapers, magazines and blog sites like to fill up their spaces with lists. One of the oddest for me is a feature on people who died in the year in question – not sure I understand what value that has other than its easy to do. Lists about books are popular of course because they’re often combined with features on the perfect Christmas present to buy your mother, gran, aged aunt, horrible nephew etc etc .
The feature pieces that ask politicians and celebrities of various status levels what they would most like in their Christmas shopping list, always amuse me. I can imagine some of them agonising over their choice, particularly the politicians. Do they chose a book to show off their street cred or something erudite that give us mere mortals the clear sign of how serious and intelligent they are?? I wonder how many of these longed for books actually get read.
It’s more interesting to find out what ordinary readers actually rate as the best books of the year. So far we’ve seen two of these. One from the members of Good Reads and the more recent one from followers of the Book Riot blog site. There is some is common ground between the two lists (marked with *) J K Rowling shows up on both as does Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore which I’ve heard good reports about. Miracle of miracles Fifty Shades is on neither. Apart from the fact they seem heavily weighted towards American authors, what struck me about both lists is the absence of many heavy hitting authors. Only the Book Riot list includes Erdrich’s National Book Award winner and the Man Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel while the GoodReads list includes just one of the Booker longtlisted novels (Pilgrimage of Harold Fry). Is this just a reflection of the fact that word about these books is slow to percolate and interest will increase once more of them make it into more affordable paperback versions? Or is this somehow a reflection of the profile of members of these sites?
Of this list of 25 I have read precisely one (Hilary Mantel)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (94 votes)
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (80)
Insurgent by Veronica Roth (26)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (23)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (21)
The Twelve by Justin Cronin (21)
*The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (19)
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (18)
The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (17)
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (17)
*This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (16)
Arcadia by Lauren Groff (14)
*Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (13)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (13)
*Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (13)
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson (12)
Wild by Cheryl Strayed (12)
*Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (11)
*Canada by Richard Ford (11)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (11)
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (11)
*The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (10)
Every Day by David Levithan (10)
The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan (10)
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness (10)
Of this list, I’ve also read just one (Harold Fry)
The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling 11,525 votes
Where we Belong – Emily Griffin
Home Front – Kristin Hannah
The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker
*This is How you Lose Her – Junot Diaz
*Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt
*Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan
* Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend – Matthew Dicks
Grown up Kind of Pretty – Joshilyn Jackson
Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
*The Dog Stars– Peter Heller
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver
In the Shadow of the Banyan– Vadday Ratner
The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
Running the Rift – Naomi Benaron
A Walk Across the Sun – Corban Addison
Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon
*Canada – Richard Ford
*Billy Linn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain