2010 Book Prizes Commonwealth Writer's Prize Other Prizes

Serious Men – Manu Joseph


Shortlisted for 2011 Commonwealth Prize South Asia & Europe Best First Book
Shortlisted for 2010 the Man Asian Literary Prize
Winner of 2010 Hindu Best Fiction Award

Five words from the blurb: Mumbai, slums, son, genius, comic

Serious Men had a controversial reception in India because it depicts a Dalit (someone of a lower caste) as being a victim of circumstance instead of having an inferior intelligence to the Brahmin (upper-caste people). This attitude offends many people in India who like to see that these social barriers remain unquestioned.

The book centres on Ayyan, a man so fed up of life in the slums that he decides to hatch a plan to elevate his position. He claims that his 10-year-old son is a mathematical genius, but whilst this gains the attention he was looking for, the lie quickly gets out of hand.

The book is quick and easy to read, but unfortunately the humour wasn’t to my taste and although I could spot the jokes they barely raised a smile in me.

Ayyan Mani’s thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours.

The book did a fantastic job of showing the differences between the Indian castes and the unjust way in which a person’s position at birth determines their outcome in life, but as a novel I found it unsatisfying. The story had little forward momentum and I was frequently bored by their trivial discussions.

Ayyan Mani surveyed the room with his back to the wall, as he had done many times, and tried to understand how it came to be that truth was now in the hands of these unreal men. They were in the middle of debating the perfect way to cut a cake and were concluding that carving triangular pieces, as everyone does, was inefficient. 

I also failed to connect with the characters on an emotional level.

I know that a lot of people will love this book and I did find a lot to like, but I’m afraid it just didn’t contain my kind of humour.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

It’s the kind of book that you yearn to discuss, debate, analyze and always remember. At Pemberley

Joseph, a former editor of The Times of India, tries to weave a funny and clever novel about the ridiculousness of academia, and for the most part, he succeeds. Mumbai Boss

….this is an amazing book and follows in the league of White Tiger in terms of satire by Indian authors on society. Sandeepinlife’s Weblog

1960s 1970s Non Fiction Recommended books

The Mountain People – Colin Turnbull


…..our much-vaunted human values are not inherent in humanity at all, but a luxury of ordered society.



Five words from the blurb: tribe, starvation, cruelty, individual, society 

In 1964 anthropologist Colin Turnbull spent two years living with the Ik, a tribe living in the mountainous borders of Uganda and Kenya. Crops had failed for two years in a row and people were dying from starvation. This book details the shocking events he witnessed as the people struggled to survive.

Turnbull saw that the basic structure of society seemed to have been lost as everyone cared only about themselves.

Children are useless appendages, like old parents. Anyone who cannot take care of himself is a burden and a hazard to the survival of others.

The old and young were left to die – food sometimes even being stolen from their mouths. The people failed to display any of the characteristics we think of as being common to all humans, failing to show the slightest degree of compassion for those who were suffering.

…she was totally blind and had tripped and rolled to the bottom of the oror a pirre’i, and there she lay on her back, her legs and arms thrashing feebly, while a little crowd standing on the edge above looked down at her and laughed at the spectacle.

The tribe were also unusual in that the structure of the family unit had completely broken down. Children were thrown out of the home at the age of three, elderly relatives were ignored, and even the husband-wife relationship was minimal.

This entire book had me gripped and questioning how strong our own society is. In many ways this book was similar to Blindness, but the scary thing is that Mountain People is true. Human beings actually did these things to one another and there is little to stop it from happening again somewhere else.

This book isn’t perfect – there are some points when the writing is a bit dry or when too many geographical or anthropological details are added to a section, but these are very minor issues.

This book is a fascinating insight into what could happen to a society when there simply isn’t enough food for all to survive. It is my favourite read of the year so far.


So how did I discover this fantastic book?
After my disapproval of Anne Robinson as a host on the recent My Life in Books TV series (because she doesn’t like fiction) I am almost embarrassed to admit that I first heard about this book in an article she wrote for the Radio Times. All I can say is that Anne Robinson has a fantastic taste in non-fiction books and I will be keeping an eye out for more of her recommendations in future.


The Final Testament of the Holy Bible – James Frey


Five words from the blurb: Messiah, New York, healing, enraged, controversial

James Frey is clearly courting controversy with this book. The title and Bible-like lay-out of the text will cause offense to some people before they’ve read a single word. Frey ensures that this outrage is continued by filling the first chapter with an unusually high density swear words – the concentration of which isn’t repeated anywhere else in the book.

I had no plans to read this book, but a copy popped through my letter box from the publishers and once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. The basic premise is that the Messiah is alive and living in New York. I found the concept interesting as anyone in our society who claims that they can perform miracles or speak to God is generally not taken very seriously.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of a person who comes into contact with Ben Zion (the supposed son of God). Initially the narrators know little about the man, but as the book progresses we hear from those who are closer to him and so more information is revealed.

I loved the first half of this book – it was fast paced and entertaining. In many ways it reminded me of a Dan Brown book, but with better structure and less historical research.

The text was initially a lot less controversial than I had expected from the cover. Whenever a potentially controversial statement was made it was balanced by another character expressing the opposing view, or by one so charming that few could disagree with it:

Biblical stories were written decades, and sometimes centuries, after the events they supposedly depict, events for which there is absolutely no historical evidence. There is no such thing as God’s word on earth. Or if there is, it is not to be found in books.
Then where is it to be found?
In love. In the laughter of children. In a gift given. In a life saved. In the quiet of morning. In the dead of night. In the sound of the ocean, or the sound of a car. It can be found in anything, anywhere. It is the fabric of our lives, our feelings, the people we live with, things we know to be real.

Unfortunately the book went downhill towards the end. We started to see the ways in which Ben Zion ‘loved’ everyone and I felt that James Frey was just trying to throw as many controversial scenes into the text as possible. It wasn’t necessary for him to sleep with everyone (male and female) and I was inwardly groaning as he made a girl pregnant and then took her for an abortion. It wasn’t necessary and just undermined what could have been a good book.

I also struggled with the writing style in the last 100 pages – it became overly sentimental and more like something written by Mitch Albom than the faster pace of the first section.

I found much of the book entertaining, but ultimately I was disappointed by the way in which controversial scenes were added to the text for no good reason. This book is guaranteed to start a conversation, but unfortunately it isn’t going to be a very intelligent one.

Orange Prize Other

The 2011 Orange Prize Shortlist

The Orange Prize shortlist has just been announced as:

I predicted four out of the six correctly, but I was surprised that A Visit from the Goon Squad didn’t make the list – especially since it has been winning every prize it has been eligible for recently.

Who will win the Orange Prize?

I have no idea! I would guess that Great House or The Memory of Love has the greatest chance of winning, but as Room has been shortlisted I think it will still be in with a chance. I also wouldn’t be surprised if The Tiger’s Wife took the title – in fact I don’t think the field has been this wide open for a while.

What do you think of the shortlist?

Who do you think will win?

Orange Prize Other

Who will be Shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize ?

I haven’t quite finished my Orange Prize reading, but I have now sampled at least the first few chapters of each book. The majority haven’t been to my taste, but I can see the quality of the text. Four books jump out at me as being head and shoulders above the rest and I think these will breeze onto the shortlist:

The writing in each of these books is outstanding and I will be very surprised if any of them are missing from the shortlist when it is announced on Tuesday 12th April.

Filling the remaining two spaces on the shortlist is far trickier. I was thinking about going against popular opinion by predicting that Room wouldn’t make the cut. It was my favourite, but it is very different from the others on the list and therefore I have a feeling the judges won’t be the biggest fans of it. My problem is that none of the other books on the longlist are jumping out at me and I can’t get Room out of my head. I’m going to add it to my prediction in the hope they pick my favourite book, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was absent.

The final spot is almost impossible for me to fill. I wouldn’t be surprised to see The Birth of Love, Swamplandia! or Annabel on the shortlist, but I’m going to plump for The London Train, soley because none of the other selections are from the UK!

My prediction for the 2011 Orange Prize shortlist:

What do you think of my prediction?

Which books do you think will make the 2011 Orange Prize shortlist?

2010 2011 Orange Prize Other

Five More Disappointing Oranges

I haven’t had much luck with the Orange longlist this year. Rather than depress you with a series of negative review posts I thought I’d squeeze my grievances into one long post. Then next week I’ll be able to move on and tell you about all the wonderful books I’ve been reading in the past few days.

Here are my reasons for not falling in love with five more of the Oranges:

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

Five words from the blurb: Freetown, friendship, life, war, love

The Memory of Love is set in set in Freetown, Sierra Leone, shortly after the civil war. A psychologist from England discovers Elias Cole, an elderly man, in the hospital and through a series of notebooks we discover what life was like for Elias in 1969 – 30 years earlier.

I immediately fell in love with the writing. It was so vivid that I could imagine exactly what it was like to live in the city.

A change in the season. Surreptitious at first. At night the rain tapped on the windowpanes, scores of hesitant fingers. Dawn brought bright skies, washed of the desert dust, and the hard, coppery smell of earth. For the first time in months you had a clear view of the hills from the city.

I bonded with all the characters and felt I understood their emotions and motivations. Basically I was in love with this book, thinking I could easily award it five stars. But then everything began to unravel. Nothing happened and I became frustrated by the lack of action. This book was so packed with detail that it takes a long time to read each page and so by the time I got to around the 80 page mark I had already been reading it for almost three hours. This slowness meant I felt the boredom even more and so the next hour of reading was very tedious. After about 120 pages I gave up and started skimming. Occasional sections grabbed my interest, but overall I was shocked by how little actually happened in the remaining 300 pages – I could summarise the entire plot in just a couple of lines.

I slowed down to read the ending and was saddened to see how predictable the whole book had been.

This book has the best writing I’ve found on the Orange longlist so far. If it had contained a more complex plot then it could have been fantastic.



Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Five words from the blurb: alligator, theme park, family, swamp, mythic

This is another book that started really well and then lost my attention as time went on. I loved the initial descriptions of life in the alligator theme park, but I felt the only real character in the book was the swamp. All the people were flat and most of their reactions were fairly unbelievable. I also struggled with the magical realism present in this book – it felt a bit forced.

On the plus-side the writing was fantastic, but I’m afraid I need a bit more than that to pull me through to the end. I started skimming after about 95 pages and was never pulled back into the story.



The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

Five words from the blurb: Budapest, Paris, tragedy, Jewish, family

I had high hopes for The Invisible Bridge as I was told it was one of the few Oranges with a plot, but I’m afraid I was disappointed by this one too. I found the characters to be one-dimensional visions of perfection and their relationships were overly sentimental. I started skimming after about 150 pages, but began to read again as the plot focused on the forced-labour camps. The book was well researched, but it was all too contrived and predictable. It might have been better with 300 pages removed, but the simplicity of the plot could not sustain my attention for nearly 600 pages.



Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela

Five words from the blurb: Sudan, household, faith, modernising, future

I think my disappointment with this book began with the comparison to Naguib Mahfouz on the cover. Apart from the setting (and the confusing number of characters in the beginning!)  these books have little in common. Lyrics Alley is a much simpler book that lacks the depth and atmosphere of Mahfouz’s work. It was quick and easy to read, but it lacked that magic spark. I did read all the way to the end, but never felt connected to any of the characters on an emotional level.


Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Five words from the blurb: London, circus, collector, animals, journey

This was another book that began really well. I was instantly drawn into the story of a little boy coming face-to-face with an escaped tiger. The depiction of life in a circus was wonderful, but after that things went downhill. They set sail on a journey to look for a komodo dragon and life aboard the ship was dull. It dragged for far too many pages before finally reaching a good climax. Unfortunately it was too little, too late for me as the majority of the book was disappointing.


Did you love any of these books?