2000 - 2007 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Other Prizes

The Harmony Silk Factory – Tash Aw


Winner of 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best First Book) and 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award  

The Harmony Silk Factory is set in Malaysia during the early 1940s – a period in which the Japanese began their invasion of the country. The book is divided into three parts, each telling the story of Johnny Lim, a textile merchant with a shady past, from a different perspective.

The book started off really well. The writing was fantastic and I was quickly drawn into the account of Johnny’s early life, as told by his son, Jasper.  Johnny was a fantastic character – I loved seeing the way he got out of various scrapes and rose to become one of the most important men in the area.

Some people are born with a streak of malice running through them. It poisons their blood for ever, swimming in their veins like a mysterious virus. It may lurk unnoticed for many years, surfacing only occasionally. Good times may temporarily suppress these instincts, and the person may even appear well intentioned and honest. Sooner or later, however, the cold hatred wins over. It is an incurable condition.

Unfortunately, the wonderful story telling came to an abrupt end as we reached part 2 (p120). The narrator switched to Snow (Johnny’s wife) and the prose took the form of a diary. The story of how Johnny and Snow came to marry was nowhere near as interesting as part 1 and the diary made the pace slower. Very little happened in this section and my mind wandered from the page at several points.

Part 3 was narrated by Englishman, Peter Wormwood, and repeated many of the events recounted earlier in the book, but from a slightly different perspective. I never warmed to Wormwood and found it a real chore to read most of this section. I recognise that the point is to show how people can view the same person in a different light, but it meant that I struggled to maintain an emotional connection throughout the narrative. I wish that the whole book had been written in the style of the first part and not tried to get too clever.

Overall there was a lot to enjoy in this book, but the frustrating final section left the book on a low note.

Have you read Tash Aw’s latest book, Map of the Invisible World?

Is is better than this one?

2000 - 2007 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Historical Fiction Recommended books

Haweswater – Sarah Hall


Winner of the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize First Book Award and 2003 Betty Trask Award

I spent my teenage years living in the Lake District and so I have a soft spot for anything set in Cumbria. Haweswater is one of many lakes in the Lake District, but unlike the majority it is man-made; created by the construction of a dam and the subsequent flooding of the valley in the 1930s. Haweswater gives a moving account of how the remote farming community came to terms with the fact that their village was going to be destroyed and describes their final months as they prepare to leave a home that has been theirs for generations.

Photo Credit: Trevor Rickard

Haweswater had an extra impact on me as I visited the village of Mardale when it was revealed during a drought. The photo above shows a typical view of Haweswater as it is today; whilst the one below shows a similar view during a drought – with the roads, demolished houses and farm walls revealed.

Photo Credit: Janet Richardson

I loved the Cumbrian dialect in this book. You don’t hear it on television very often and I think it is the first time I have read a book containing it.

Teddy’s gone fer Frithy. Nowt else to dyah but wait. Thowt aboot garn misell, Sam. Twa arms better un yan, eh? Even auld bugger like misell?

When I first moved to Cumbria I couldn’t understand a word the locals were saying and I suspect that many readers will struggle to understand the dialect in this book. The good news is that the majority of the novel is written in beautiful, descriptive prose and so you will still understand everything that is happening even if you don’t catch what they are saying!

For the last three hundred years or more there often could be seen a man or a child pausing on the bridge to look below at the water, idling in conversation with a companion, or as a solitary, watching the trout rise and flick between the reeds under the bridge. Casting an eye over the river, as if for no other reason than there was water flowing past.

Despite the fact that you know what happens in the end, this is a fantastic story. The characters are very well developed and I felt a strong emotional connection to them. A dark sense of foreboding builds as the novel progresses and the ending is heartbreaking. This is a beautiful portrait of a lost community.

I’m slightly biased, but I highly recommend that you read it.

Have you read any books set in the Lake District?

2009 Commonwealth Writer's Prize

Solo by Rana Dasgupta

  Winner of 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is my favourite book award and so I’m very pleased that it lived up to my expectations and provided me with another wonderful book that I wouldn’t have discovered without it.

Solo is set in Bulgaria and as I love science I was very excited to see that the central character is a chemist. Now a blind, old man, he reflects upon how much has changed over the course of his life and explains the difficult situations he faced over the years.

I knew very little about the history of Bulgaria before reading this book and it was nice to find out so much about this country’s difficult past. The combination of both European and Asian ancestry, and the struggle against communism makes me wonder why I haven’t read more fiction set in this fascinating country before.

The book was very well written and successfully managed to combine science with literature – a feat few authors can manage without patronising readers with a scientific background or going over the heads of those that don’t.

I loved the first half of this book which followed the chemist’s life in a fairly linear fashion. He was such an endearing, slightly grumpy character, but packed with the wisdom of a long and complicated life.

He switches on his television for a bit of sound to eat his beans by. He is irritated by the weather programmes that come on the international channels. Ignorant people judging the world’s weather. In that place it will be a nice day because there is pure sunshine. They estimate a nice day as when you can sit outside in sunglasses and drink coffee that no normal person can afford. Their minds cannot consider that a place is full of people cursing because there is no rain.

I found the second half much less enjoyable. It consisted of “daydreams” which could otherwise be described as a collection of short stories. The writing quality remained high, but I lost that emotional attachment to the chemist, so it felt a bit disconnected.

Overall this is a wonderful book. I recommend it to all lovers of literary fiction, if only so you learn a bit about Bulgarian history.

2009 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Recommended books

The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill

 Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008 

Note: This book is called Someone Knows My Name in the US 

The Book is Negroes is an epic story following the life of one woman, Aminata Diallo, as she is captured from her West African village and sold as a child slave. We see her grow into a strong woman who battles against adversity, ending up in London amongst key figures in the abolition of the slave trade. 

On that slave vessel, I saw things that the people of London would never believe. But I think of the people who crossed the sea with me. The ones who survived. We saw the same things. Some of us still scream out in the middle of the night. But there are men, women and children walking about the streets without the faintest idea of our nightmares. They cannot know what we endured if we never find anyone to listen.

The book gripped me throughout. I immediately connected with Aminata and loved seeing her develop from a frightened child into a brave woman. The fact that the whole story was seen through her eyes meant that by the end of the book I knew everything about her. I felt as though I was part of the story, rather than a distant observer.

I thought I knew a lot about the slave trade, but I was completely unaware of some elements of this book. I has no idea that slaves helped the British fight the Revolutionary War in Manhattan, or that some of those who did were shipped to Nova Scotia; so this book educated as well as entertained me. 

There were points when I felt that the plot was a bit too convenient – Aminita seemed to end up in all the right places, just as critical moments of history took place. In the end I can’t complain too much – the story was fantastic and the notes at the end explained a little bit about the history, making me realise that it could almost have happened. 

This book is easy to read – I’d describe it as quality fiction, rather than literary fiction. It is the type of book that has broad appeal and so I’m surprised it hasn’t had more coverage in the blogging world. I’d compare it to The Help or A Thousand Splendid Suns – the type of book selected by Richard and Judy or The TV Book Club, enjoyed and discussed by book clubs everywhere.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, if only so you are aware of the numerous ways in which slaves suffered.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

…while the themes are definitely heavy, it doesn’t feel like a burden, even with almost 500 pages to it. Kiss a  Cloud

In focusing in on one main character, Hill has personalized history that makes us uncomfortable…   BookNAround

Books like this are so important to us and to future generations, lest we should forget. The Book Whisperer

The Book of Negroes is a masterpiece of historical literature, capturing the contradictions of the human condition in graceful, honest prose… Giraffe Days

Audies Book Prizes Booker Prize Commonwealth Writer's Prize Nobel Prize Orange Prize Other Other Prizes Pulitzer Prize

My Favourite Book Awards

There are hundreds of book awards in existence around the world. I love reading award winning fiction, as although I am not guaranteed to enjoy them, they are normally of a higher standard than ones chosen at random.

I have discovered many of my favourite authors by picking up books knowing nothing about them, other than the fact they have won an award. With some prizes I have now taken this to the next level, and am trying to read every book which has won, or in some cases been short listed for the award.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain which awards I follow and why.

The Man Booker Prize

The Man Booker Prize is awarded to the best novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. I find the books chosen for this award to be a very mixed bag. Some are outstanding, but a lot of the winning books are picked based upon the quality of the writing, at the expense of a good plot. Overall I find reading the Bookers to be a very satisfying undertaking. I am trying to read all books which have won or been short listed for the prize.

So far I have read 37/241 books from the Booker Prize short list  + 2009 longlist .

The Complete Booker blog is a great place to find other people who are reading the Bookers.


The Orange Prize

The Orange Prize is awarded to the best novel written by a woman. The books tend to be lighter, and easier to read than those of the Booker prize, although that wasn’t the case this year! I enjoy reading the Orange books so much that I am also trying to read the short list.

So far I have read 20/88 books from Orange Prize short list.

The Orange Prize Project is a blog for other people who love Orange books as much as me.


The Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize is awarded for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. I have only recently commited to reading all the books from this prize, but have consistently enjoyed the ones which I have read.

So far I have read 8/87 Pulitzer Prize winners.

The Pulitzer Project is a blog for everyone trying to read all the winners of this prize.


The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize aims to reward the best Commonwealth fiction written in English. At the moment I am not purposefully trying to complete the list, but this may change soon. I love the way that the short list is divided into four regions (Africa, The Caribbean and Canada, Europe and South Asia, and South East Asia and South Pacific) This ensures that a wide range of cultures are always reflected in the nominees. It is a great place to look if you are after books from a certain region of the world.

So far I have read 5/25 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winners


The Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is awarded annually to an author, based on the body of work they have produced. I am not trying to read all Nobel winning authors at the moment, but have enjoyed a lot of books written by the winners. The Nobel authors write literary fiction, which is often difficult to read. This means that the books have less general appeal, but with a bit of concentration they can be rewarding reads.

The Nobel Prize blog is one which I am tempted to join in the future.


Other Prizes

I am always interested in the Costa Book Awards. This is awarded to the best fiction from the UK and Ireland, but I have been disappointed by a few of the past winners. The books tend to be lighter reads, which although enjoyable, do not contain the standard of writing present in the awards mentioned previously.

I have recently rediscovered the joy of the audio book and so love browsing the list of Audie winners.

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is open to books written in any language, from anywhere in the world. I love the variety of books it contains, but this also means that they vary in their appeal to me.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is a great place to look for books in translation.

I keep an eye out for numerous other book awards, but these are the ones which interest me the most.

Which book awards do you follow?

Are there any others which you feel I am missing out on?

2009 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Recommended books

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2009

I think that The Slap is the most male book I have ever read. If you want to gain an insight into the male mind, then this book is essential reading, but I warn you that it isn’t a pretty sight. It is packed with swear words, thoughts on sex and an obsession with ‘the male dangly bits!’ This book is the male version of ‘chick lit’ and gives an insight into a male’s view of society that is rarely talked about.

The book begins at a suburban barbecue, where a three-year-old child is running riot. The father of another child slaps the toddler, as the toddler tries to injure his son. Everyone is shocked, and the guests at the barbecue are divided between those who thought the three-year-old’s parents should have had more control over their son, and those who thought that no-one should ever slap a child, especially one who isn’t there own. The book switches between the views of several guests at the party, and I loved the way that my opinion was changed after hearing things from each new perspective.

…These kids, they’re unbelievable. It’s like the world owes them everything. They’ve been spoilt by their parents and by their teachers and by the fu**ing media to believe that they all have these rights but no responsibilities so they have no decency, no moral values whatsoever. They’re selfish, ignorant little s**ts. I can’t stand them.

The debate over parental responsibility and slapping has caused a big stir in Australia, where this book originates, but I think this book covers all angles of the subject well. The book is easy to read, fast paced and has a satisfying ending.

The graphic sex, abusive language and controversial subject means that this book isn’t for everyone, but it will generate debate and isn’t that a great thing for a book to do?




Have you read this book? Were you shocked and offended?

Do you think it is right for such a graphic book to win a prestigious prize?