I seem to have consumed a great many books over the winter, the last few weeks being especially intensive.
The Booker long list was announced on 26 July, and I noted at the time that I had not read a single one. Normally there are one or two that are worth looking at, even if they don’t make it to the short list, let alone win the prize. I‘m often baffled by the selection of the winner, last year’s winner, for instance, The Finkler Question, which I got around to reading after the award was announced, and subsequently loathed, though I loved the 2009 winner Wolf Hall.
This year’s long list seems diverse and interesting, so I decided to give some of them a go, my stricture being that they must be available in ebook format and be appealing in one way or another to my taste. Normally I would only get around to reading a small selection of the Booker list, as the expense of buying books in Australia is prohibitive and besides, half the list is not available here at all.
The Kindle comes to rescue again, so this year I can sample those books on the long list available in ebook format at less than half the cost of a regular book.
So far I’ve read three of the long list; a seafaring tale, a western and a Victorian mystery thriller set around horse racing. All were very different and all were entertaining and interesting to read.
The seafaring tale is Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, narrated by Jaffy Brown, who opens the novel with the following statement:
I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black waters of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when a tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.
Jaffy’s adventures, after being saved from the tiger by Jamrach of the title, and given a job as yardman and animal carer in the menagerie, eventually take him to sea in quest of a dragon. The voyage ends in shipwreck and what follows thereafter is one of the most harrowing reading experiences I have ever undergone. Towards the end of the book Jaffy recaps his life as follows:
One way or another I suppose you could say that voyage was the making of me. I’d have been a yardboy. Is that what it was all for? To make of me the man I am now? Is God mad? Is that it? Stuck between a mad God and merciless nature? What a game.
Believe me, it’s a remarkable book, powerfully written – a tale of high adventure and survival after unimaginable hardship.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick De Witt is a picaresque Western yarn set during the Californian gold rush period. The story is narrated by Eli Sisters who along with his brother Charlie are famous gunslingers feared throughout the west. They are hired by a man called the Commodore to seek out and destroy a prospector named Herman Kermit Warms.
Eli’s narrative follows the brothers journey from Oregon to San Francisco, and their encounters along the way, which often end in bloodshed.
However the book has more depth than at first appears, and is darkly funny. Eli’s voice is matter of fact, laconic and deadpan, and he often muses on his career as a gunslinger and his wish to get out of the business, settle down and open a trading post. I won’t spoil the ending, but if you liked True Grit or the Coen Brothers movies, this book will probably appeal.
With my fondness for horse racing, I suppose it’s obvious why I should find Derby Day by D.J. Taylor appealing.
Horse racing during the Victorian period is in fact the focus of this novel.
The book is more an intrigue than a mystery, with various characters from both high and low life all scheming for a result on Derby Day. And there are a few murders to be investigated as well. None of the characters are particularly attractive or likeable, personality wise, but the complex plot, and the wheeling and dealing on the part of various characters, keep one interested to the end, which naturally concludes with the running of the race at Epsom. The hero of the novel, if there is one, is the racehorse Tiberius. Whether he wins the Derby or not, I’m not letting on.
Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say any of the above novels will the Booker Prize, I found them all enjoyable, though I am not inspired enough by the writing to seek out other novels written by any of the above authors. I plan to read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes next, just as soon as I can download it onto my Kindle and will probably read The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, as it is a dystopian novel, and has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P D James’ Children of Men, both of which books I love.