Sunday, September 11, 2011

Man Booker 2011

Now that we've finished the book challenge, it's time to turn back toward what's happening in the book business now.  It's award season again and the Man Booker Prize recently announced the shortlist of nominees for this year's prize.  Showing outstanding taste, three of the six finalists are Random House titles.  And showing excellent taste on my part, I'd already read all three.

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller is the dark horse on the list--a first novel from an unknown author that is as much a thriller as it is a literary work.  The story is told in the form of a long letter to a businessman's fiance on the eve of his wedding.  Nick wants to confess all...including his time spent in Moscow.  While working there, he comes in contact with two beautiful sisters, Masha and Katya and they convince him to intervene in acquiring an apartment for their aging aunt.  This is corrupt, dark, post-Soviet Russia, and a "snowdrop," so you know, refers to the bodies that surface after the snow melts with the first spring thaw.  Shady deals and complicated characters mark this auspicious debut.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch actually has a great shot of winning the prize; it's one of my favorite books this year.  This is a high seas adventure novel with a Dickensian flair, following a street urchin who finds his calling helping to tend the animals in a 19th Century menagerie.  This is the era in which rare animals are coming back to England from all over the world as explorers travel the globe, the era of Darwin and Moby-Dick.  When a rich collector asks Jamrach to acquire a dragon from the South Pacific, he sends Jaffy to locate and return with the beast.  Our young hero sets out on a whaler destined for the Pacific and author Carol Birch treats the reader to whaling adventures (I can't get enough of this period and these guys on the boats).  Jaffy finds his dragon, but is also his albatross.  I love this book.

Julian Barnes is the Susan Lucci of the Man Booker Prize, always a nominee, never yet a winner. His new novel, The Sense of an Ending, may just be the one to secure his first win.  Tony and Adrian are part of a group of school chums at an English boarding school.  While Tony is very much your good-but-unexceptional student, Adrian is brilliant, the genius of his class.  He also seems indifferent to emotional connections.  He is your average eccentric philosopher.  After school, Adrian goes to Oxford while Tony goes to a regular college, and Tony begins dating a girl who is stylish and sophisticated and rather out of his league. Eventually they split and after a time she begins dating Adrian.  And then Adrian commits suicide.  Thirty years later, Tony is left Adrian's journal in a will, but his ex-girlfriend won't give it up.  The tangled lives in this short, intense novel twist around each other, and this ending of The Sense of an Ending surprised me in a way that no book has in years.  Shocking would be a way to describe it.  Excellent would describe the book, and all of Julian Barnes's work (go read Arthur & George too).  This novel was supposed to come out later in the winter, but when Knopf found out it made the Man Booker shortlist they moved it to October.  This is good news for readers; it's a great book.

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