2012 Commonwealth Writer's Prize

Beneath the Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba

Beneath the Darkening Sky Shortlisted for 2013 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

Five words from the blurb: child, soldiers, Africa, plight, resonates

Beneath the Darkening Sky is a very important book. It highlights the plight of African child soldiers; explaining how they end up carrying guns and murdering people at such a young age. It is narrated by Obinna, a nine-year-old boy who is taken from his village and forced to become a soldier. It shows how innocent children become hardened to suffering and death and how abuse slowly turns them into violent individuals.

Obinna is an engaging narrator. His thoughts and emotions jump from the page and give the reader a shocking insight into the horror these children have to endure. The way Obinna’s attitude changes over the course of the novel is cleverly done as it enables the reader to understand and empathise with someone committing atrocities – a rare and special thing to find in fiction.

The descriptions were shocking in their simplicity. The passage below is a good example of the level of violence contained in the book and the sad confusion experienced by children who have never witnessed it before:

The Captain steps away and points his shining machete at one of the boys, an older one with scars on his cheek. The boy screams like he’s won something and runs forward, his own machete raised. What’s he doing?
The boy swings his machete down, onto the old man’s neck. The old man’s head is not joined to his body. Both are lying on the ground, blood pumping out of the neck just like a goat killed for a feast. The rebels cry out in celebration. The killer boy grabs the head from the ground. The old man’s eyes are still open. Maybe he’s still alive. Maybe they can put the head back on.

Beneath the Darkening Sky is powerful book that doesn’t shy away from the truth. It can be seen as a cry for help; giving a voice to the thousands of children who aren’t allowed to choose their future. It is also a fantastic story with lots of twists and turns. If you enjoy reading about the darker side of humanity and like to experience a full range of emotions then this is the perfect choice.

Highly recommended.


2011 Commonwealth Writer's Prize

The Book of Answers by C. Y. Gopinath

The Book of Answers Shortlisted for 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

Five words from the blurb: India, satire, world, problems, society

The Book of Answers is a clever satire of society. It shows how willing people are to look for the easy answer to their problems and how politicians can be made to believe anything if it helps their career.

The book begins with Patros, an ordinary Indian man, inheriting a mysterious metal box. This box is said to hold a book containing answers to all the world’s problems.  The responsibility of owning this object becomes too much for Patros so he sells it, only to see it turn up in the hands of a godman a few months later. This godman soon finds himself advising the top politicians in the land. The only problem is that Patros knows the key to the box is hidden in Kerala, so the godman must be inventing every one of his ideas.

I often struggle with political satire, especially ones that originate from other countries, because I don’t know enough about the political parties involved. This wasn’t the case for The Book of Answers and I think this is because it can be seen as a parody of governments in general, rather than of a specific regime. The blind faith that officials put in their advisers can also be seen in many large companies and so I think this book will appeal to people whether they have an interest in politics or not.

The main joy of this book is the large number of cleverly formed ideas. In many ways it reminded me of The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung, a book containing many ideas that sound ridiculous, but turn out to have happened already. I don’t think that any of ideas in The Book of Answers have been implemented yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the less controversial ones were debated in the next few years. 

“We’ve been googling since early 2000. Today’s rules are different. You don’t have to know anything any more; you only have to know where to find it.” The Mahajan Commission recommended a more “user-friendly” approach, named Ambient Solution-Seeking or ASS. Answers to all exam questions would be in the Head Clerk’s safe, one set per examinee in sealed envelopes. To receive his envelope, each student had to find his key question – What is the capital of Nauru? What is the difference between manzanilla and manzanita? and so on. These quiz questions, written on chits of thick paper and inscribed with the target student’s name, were hidden in choice venues around the examination hall: behind toilet cisterns; within the sand in cuspidors; below the Head Clerk’s paperweight; inside vacuum-sealed packets of wafers; and within the paper cones in which peanuts are sold outside college gates. The student resourceful enough to find his key question and answer it correctly would receive the answers envelope from the head clerk and sail through the exams.

Sometimes the jokes were quite subtle and I’m sure this book would benefit from a re-read to pick up on everything.

This book wasn’t perfect – it lost some of its narrative drive in the middle and could have done with some editing to make the transition between some of the scenes smoother, but on the whole it was an enjoyable, entertaining read.

Recommended to anyone looking for something a little bit different!


Unfortunately this book isn’t published in the UK/US. I was lucky enough to receive an e-copy from the author, but it is possible to download it from Smashwords or Amazon.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a thoroughly readable and thought-provoking book. Eleutherophobia

Behind the humour, there is a very serious message about the nature of power corrupting and the inability of democracy…. Tony’s Reading List

This book reminded me partly of Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian, The Parrish Lantern


2011 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Other Prizes

Pao by Kerry Young


Shortlisted for 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
Shortlisted for 2011 Costa Prize for Fiction

Five words from the blurb: Jamaica, Chinatown, business, political, transforming

Pao is only fourteen-year-old when he arrives in Jamaica in 1938; fleeing the violence of the Chinese revolution. He finds a home with his mother and brother in Chinatown and they try to adjust to life in a country that is very different from their own.

I immediately fell in love with Pao and his numerous money making schemes. His transformation from innocent child to powerful man was engaging to read, but as he grew up and his crimes became more serious I found that I was slowly distancing myself from him and by the end of the book I didn’t like him at all. This could be seen as a negative, but it is rare for characters to undergo such a developmental arc and I actually found this transformation impressive.

The book does a fantastic job of explaining the history of Jamaica. Details of the violence and unrest are sprinkled through the text, giving the reader a good understanding of how the country gained its independence from the British.

So what with all him bicycle talk I never get a chance to tell Zhang ’bout the commotion, and how the dockworkers bring the whole of the downtown to a standstill. But it no matter. Next day it all over town ’bout how Alexander Bustamante get arrested because they think he the one leading the strike, and how the English government probably going to send a commissioner to look into the disturbances, that is how they say it, even though nobody can see no point in that because everybody already know what the trouble is – no work, no food, and no hope that anything going get better.

The Jamaican dialogue took a little bit of time to get used to, but once I adjusted it gave the book a fantastic atmosphere. I think this is one of those books that would benefit from an audio version as I’m sure it would come across better if narrated by a native speaker instead of the voice inside my head!

The main problem with the narrative was that as the book progressed increasingly large periods of time were skipped – this gave the book a disjointed feel. Sometimes characters were returned to after a long absence and I felt as though I no longer knew who they were and this meant I didn’t care about them.

I also felt that the story was a bit dull. So much seemed to be going on around the periphery, but the central story lacked that magical spark.

This book did a lot to explain a period of history that I knew little about and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for fiction set in Jamaica.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …an extremely interesting novel, perfect for summer reading. A Reading Odyssey

….the way it is written was very distracting, and eventually weakens the story itself. Jules’ Book Reviews

 Pao is an utterly beguiling, unforgettable novel of race, class and creed, love and ambition, and a country in the throes of tumultuous change. Book Dilettante

Commonwealth Writer's Prize Other

The 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Shortlist

Yesterday the 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlist was announced.

The prize is

Awarded for best first book and is open to writers from the Commonwealth who have had their first novel (full length work of fiction) published between 1 January and 31 December 2011.

The shortlisted books are:


Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua (India)

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Pakistan)

The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya (India)

The Book of Answers by C.Y. Gopinath (India) (eBook only)

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (Sri Lanka)


Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku (Zambia)

Jubilee by Shelley Harris (South Africa)

The Dubious Salvation Of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss (South Africa)

Canada and Europe

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards (UK)

The Town that Drowned by Riel Nason (Canada)

Dancing Lessons by Olive Senior (Canada)

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Canada)

The Dancing and the Death on Lemon Street by Denis Hirson (UK)

Pao by Kerry Young (UK)

The Caribbean

Sweetheart by Alecia McKenzie  (Jamaica)

The Pacific

The Ottoman Motel by Christopher Currie (Australia)

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (Australia)

Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane (Australia)

Me and Mr Booker by Cory Taylor (Australia)

The New Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is my favourite book award – I seem to love more of their winners than any other book prize. This year the format has changed slightly in that the prize is now only for debut authors and shortlists are not given for each region (I divided the above shortlist into regions out of curiosity)

The only problem with the award is that most of the books are not available globally. Only 11 are available in the UK (the ones in the above list with links to Amazon).

I’ve read 4 of the shortlist already:

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

Important, powerful book about the loss of a traditional way of life.

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

Beautifully written, but bizarre look at memory and loss.

The Dubious Salvation Of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss

Entertaining story from POV of an 11-year-old boy, unfortunately ending isn’t as good as first half.

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Moving story about a difficult relationship between a mother and her son.

Two of the other books available to the UK are about cricket (The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya and Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka) and so as I have an aversion to the sport I’m reluctant to try them. That only leaves a few, so I should be able to read them before the winner is announced on 8th June.

Have you read any of the shortlist?

Which book would you like to win?



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

Commonwealth Writer's Prize Other

2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Shortlists Announced

I love the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and so was excited to see the 2011 shortlists revealed earlier this week. The frustrating thing is that most of the books are not available in the UK yet, but hopefully this will change now that they’ve made the shortlist for this book award.

The 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlists are:

The books pictured are those available in the UK now (or in the very near future)

The shortlisted winners for the Africa Best Book are:
The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone)
Men of the South by Zukiswa Wanner (South Africa)
The Unseen Leopard by Bridget Pitt (South Africa)
Oil on Water by Helon Habila (Nigeria)
Blood at Bay by Sue Rabie (South Africa)
Banquet at Brabazan by Patricia Schonstein (South Africa)

The shortlisted winners for the Africa Best First Book are:
Happiness is a Four Letter Word by Cynthia Jele (South Africa)
Bitter Leaf by Chioma Okereke (Nigeria)
The Fossil Artist by Graeme Friedman (South Africa)
Colour Blind by Uzoma Uponi (Nigeria)
Voice of America by E. C. Osondu (Nigeria)
Wall of Days by Alastair Bruce (South Africa)

The shortlisted writers for the Canada and Caribbean Best Book are:
The Sky is Falling by Caroline Adderson (Canada)
Room by Emma Donoghue (Canada)
The Master of Happy Endings by Jack Hodgins (Canada)
In The Fabled East by Adam Lewis Schroeder (Canada)
The Death of Donna Whalen by Michael Winter (Canada)
Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard by Richard B. Wright (Canada)

The shortlisted writers for the Canada and Caribbean Best First Book are:
Bird Eat Bird by Katrina Best (Canada)
Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro (Canada)
Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack (Canada)
Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Canada)
The Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky (Canada)
Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco (Canada)


The shortlisted winners for the South Asia and Europe Best Book are:
Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela (UK)
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (UK)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (UK)
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (UK)
Sex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido (UK)
Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett (UK)

The shortlisted winners for the South Asia and Europe Best First Book are:
Serious Men by Manu Joseph (India)
Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph (India)
The House with the Blue Shutters by Lisa Hilton (UK)
Children of the Sun by Max Shaefer (UK)
Grace Williams says it Loud by Emma Henderson (UK)
Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller (UK)

The shortlisted winners for the South East Asia and Pacific Best Book are:
Reading Madame Bovary by Amanda Lohrey (Australia)
That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott (Australia)
Time’s Long Ruin by Stephen Orr (Australia)
Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones (New Zealand)
Notorious by Roberta Lowing (Australia)
Gifted by Patrick Evans (New Zealand)

The shortlisted winners for the South East Asia and Pacific Best First Book are:
21 Immortals by Rozlan Mohd Noor (Malaysia)
A Man Melting by Craig Cliff (New Zealand)
The Graphologist’s Apprentice by Whiti Hereaka (New Zealand)
The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay (Australia)
Traitor by Stephen Daisley (Australia/New Zealand)
A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill (Australia)

I have read several of the shortlist:

Room by Emma Donoghue 

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell stars41

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore 

The Long Song by Andrea Levy stars41

Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco 

Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones  

Grace Williams says it Loud by Emma Henderson  (not reviewed)

The shortlist is too long for me to attempt to complete it and since half the books aren’t available in this country that isn’t an easy task, but I hope that you can help me.

Have you read any of the books on this list?

Do you think that I’ll particularly enjoy reading any of them?

Who do you think deserves to win?