FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013

And the prize goes to…


It has taken six months but I’ve finally finished reading the 2013 Booker shortlist – a mammoth task, not made easier by the current fashion for ridiculously long books. The final part of the task is to decide whether I agree with the judges’ choice of winner. So here’s a brief summary of what I thought of the books – click on the book title if you’d like to read any of the full reviews.

Just for fun (and hopefully to provoke a bit of controversy), I’ve put the books in reverse order…

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Shouldn’t have been shortlisted…


the lowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri


Lahiri’s strange choice to leave the interesting character and storyline of Udayan and the Naxalbari at an early point in the book, and instead follow the dull-to-the-point-of tears Subhash and Gauri to the States for (yet) another look at the ‘immigrant experience’, combined with her lacklustre writing and lifeless characterisation, led this to being the only one of the shortlist that I really wouldn’t recommend at all. So, for the FF Shadow Booker Award, it’s been removed and replaced.

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6th and last place


a tale for the time beingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


The quality of writing and storytelling shown in the part of this book that deals with the young Japanese girl Nao is in stark contrast to the clumsiness and dullness of the portion relating to the author’s namesake (and alter-ego?) Ruth. Add in copious and unnecessary footnotes, daft little drawings and the silliest descent into quantum-mechanical quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo at the end and you have a book that could have been great…but isn’t. (Perhaps it’s great in a parallel universe, though…)

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5th place


HarvestHarvest by Jim Crace


With poetic, often lyrical writing, Crace’s book brilliantly evokes a rural society on the cusp of overwhelming changes as landlords begin to enclose land for sheep-farming. Unfortunately the narrative voice is somewhat unconvincing and the story falls away badly in the last third of the book. Well worth reading, and worthy of its shortlisting, but just fails to be great.

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4th place


Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín


The strongest and most beautiful piece of writing on the shortlist, this short novella punches well above its weight and will undoubtedly be the book I remember most vividly. But…it’s far too short to be considered a novel, and for that reason, regardless of how much I loved it, I remain surprised that it was shortlisted and can’t bring myself to think that it should have won. However, it comes with my highest recommendation of all the books – if you haven’t read this one, you should.

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3rd place


burial ritesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent


This book should have been shortlisted in place of The Lowland. A haunting and heartbreaking debut, this fictionalised account of a true story shows a confidence and assurance rarely matched by even the most experienced writers. Kent conveys brilliantly the harsh Icelandic environment, the relentless struggle of the inhabitants, the constant threat of extreme weather; and her use of language is skilled and often poetic. The omission of this one in favour of The Lowland shows that sometimes more account is given to an author’s name and reputation than to the actual quality of the novel.

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2nd place


we need new namesWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo


There are significant weaknesses in this book – firstly, the ticklist of horrors that Bulawayo seems to be working through in both Zimbabwe and the US, and secondly, the weakness of the second half in comparison to the first. However these are massively outweighed by the positives – the freshness of the writing, the characterisation of Darling (who has joined my list of unforgettables) and most of all, the beautiful chapter in the heart of the book that reads like a prose poem as it describes the exodus of a generation from their troubled homeland. This book has gained a permanent place in my heart and the decision not to name it as my winner has been a hard one indeed…

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1st place and…

Winner of the FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013!


the luminaries blueThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


Yes, I believe the judges got it right! (I bet they’re sighing with relief!) Intelligent, original, and wonderfully crafted, Catton’s structural game-playing doesn’t prevent this from being first and foremost a great read. The only one of the books apart from The Testament of Mary in which the highest standards are maintained all the way through, The Luminaries does what any great book must do – it teaches us something we didn’t know and sheds some light on that nebulous thing we call the ‘human condition’. Despite its ridiculous length, I can envisage re-reading this book more than once and gaining something new each time. A worthy winner!

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Overall I enjoyed the books and the challenge of reading them all, but I suspect it will be a one-off experience, especially since, by allowing American authors to participate, the Booker has thrown away the thing that made it unique amongst literary prizes – its deep ties to the Commonwealth. (I shudder at the thought of The Goldfinch winning in 2014…)

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Now…let the controversy begin…


(puts on some music and steps out of the way of hordes of irate Lady Fancifulls…)


A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

a tale for the time beingSlow-moving existential angst…

😐 😐 😐

Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker, this tells two intertwined tales – of Nao, a Japanese schoolgirl, and of Ruth, a Canadian author of Japanese heritage. Ruth has found Nao’s journal washed up on the shore and begins to obsess about finding out whether the people and events Nao discusses are true. Nao’s story is of a young girl who has lived most of her life in California but has now returned to Japan and we see the society through her eyes.

Nao’s story is interesting, if bleak. Having been brought up in California, Nao is seen as an outsider by her classmates on her return to Japan. We learn of the extreme bullying she is both subjected to and participates in at school, leading her to drop out. Meantime, her suicidal father is making repeated failed attempts to end his own life, leading Nao to harbour suicidal thoughts of her own. In an effort to break this cycle, her parents send her to spend the summer with her old great-grandmother, a Zen nun, who rapidly becomes Nao’s sole support and spiritual guide. While here, Nao learns the story of her great-uncle, a war-hero who died during WWII.

Ruth’s story is a dull distraction. Ruth is a writer, struggling with long-term writers block, giving Ozeki the opportunity to tell the reader, at length, how very, very tough life is for writers – even one who lives in fairly idyllic surroundings with no apparent real health or money worries and with a partner who loves and supports her. She is also in a perpetual state of existential angst and this part of the novel merely serves to interrupt and slow to a crawl the telling of Nao’s tale. And to make matters worse, Ozeki introduces a quasi-mystical, quasi-quantum-mechanical element into Ruth’s part that turns Nao’s believable and often moving story into some kind of mystical fantasy in the end. The underlying questions that are being examined – of identity and the nature of time – are addressed with a subtlety in Nao’s story that is almost destroyed by the clumsy handling of Ruth’s portion of the book.

Ruth Ozeki
Ruth Ozeki

The writing is skilful and confident for the most part and, when telling a plain tale, Ozeki writes movingly and often beautifully. Unfortunately she has attempted to be too clever in this, not just with the supernatural nonsense, but with the whole conceit of Ruth translating Nao’s diary as we go along. This leads to lots of unnecessary footnotes, silly little drawings and playing with fonts, all of which merely serve to distract from the story. Ruth will translate a sentence except for one or two words, which she leaves as Japanese in the main body of the text, and then gives the translation a footnote – why? It would be understandable if she only did this with concepts which may be unfamiliar to a Western audience, but she does it for normal words – like leaving in ‘zangyo’ and telling us in a footnote that this means ‘overtime’. The flow of reading is constantly interrupted by the need to check the bottom of the page to find out what the sentence means.

While sometimes telling a story from different points of views adds depth, in this case unfortunately the contrast serves only to weaken the thrust and impact of the main story. Had this been a plainer telling of Nao’s story alone, it would probably have got top rating from me, and overall there is enough talent on display here to mean that I may look out for more of Ozeki’s work, keeping my fingers crossed she finds a way to end future books without resorting to the fantastical. But, for me, it’s hard to see how this could stand in contention with either of the other Booker nominees I’ve read this year – Harvest or Testament of Mary. Of course, that probably means it will win…

For an entirely different view of this book, please click through to read Lady Fancifull’s review. Sometimes we agree, sometimes…not so much! 😉

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday…

Episode 2

Kes: On my home-world it’s much simpler. You choose a mate for life. There’s no distrust, no envy, no betrayal.

The Doctor: Your world must have very dry literature.

kes and the doctor

I’m delighted to report that for the first time in months my TBR list has actually fallen – by one – to 99! However, this week you all had a wonderful time trying to undo all my hard work. In fact, twelve reviews tempted me this week, so I have had to ruthlessly shortlist…

Always a Bridesmaid Awards

With grateful thanks to the reviewers/recommenders, here are the runners-up in this week’s contest:

the last policemanA murder mystery set in a world under threat of destruction from an approaching asteroid…

Mysteries in Paradise says: “Public infrastructure is collapsing. Fuel supplies are almost nil. There is no public transport, telephony is collapsing, there are very few cars on the road. Outside public buildings people hand out pamphlets urging citizens to pray. And all the time the asteroid gets closer. The exact location of where it will hit, and exactly what day are still unknown.”

See the full review at Mysteries in Paradise


train dreamsA tale of the American West in the early twentieth century, seen through the life of one man…

The Indiscriminate Critic says For such a slim volume, it takes up a surprisingly large footprint in the imagination. Conjuring up sounds of train whistles and wolf howls, the thematic echoes manage to fill the spaces between. In many ways, it’s an epic writ small.”

See the full review at The Indiscriminate Critic


tigers in red weatherFiction set at the end of WWII…

What Amy Read Next says Tigers in Red Weather is a honest and beautiful novel of desire, abandon, despair and quiet desperation, offering the reader a dark mystery and an equally dark look into the inner workings of marriage, mental illness and the lives of the rich. The hot, lazy, summer setting with a bit of glamour thrown in echoes themes from The Great Gatsby, as facades are crumbling and ugly truths are surfacing..”

See the full review at What Amy Read Next


the devil in the white cityA factual book about two men, an architect and a serial killer, in the Chicago of 1893…

LitBeetle says They want to enrapture people, gain power over them, control their hopes and quell their doubts. Burnham wants to accomplish this through the artistry of architecture, throwing millions into reverie at what humankind can accomplish in an impossibly short amount of time. Holmes wants to seduce people with his charm and control their lives, and eventually control their deaths.”

See the full review at LitBeetle


And this week’s bride is…


a tale for the time being

A story of shared humanity and the search for home. Specifically recommended to me by Lady Fancifull.

Lady Fancifull says I’m deliberately saying nothing about how these worlds and voices connect and form something lovely – tender, horrendous, shocking, charming – because this is a book which demands the reader to have the experience, be surprised, be amused, be sickened, be saddened, laugh, cry.”

To be honest, I have no idea what this book is about – all the reviews seem to be vague in the extreme – but Lady Fancifull’s track record of picking books I’ll like is pretty high…

See the full review at Lady Fancifull

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…