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Booker panel: Readers' reviews

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Review panel give their views on this years shortlist.

The judges for this year's Man Booker Prize say it is a great year for "readability", with a shortlist of "excellent books of substance".

The readers on the BBC's Booker Prize panel give their verdict on this year's shortlisted books, ahead of the winner being announced on Tuesday evening.

WHITE TIGER BY ARAVIND ADIGA
Peter Atkinson
Reviewed by: Peter Atkinson

White Tiger is a rags-to-riches story set in contemporary India - with the emphasis on the rags. Aravind Adiga tells this satirical tale through the eyes of his entrepreneurial narrator, Balram Halawai, in the form of seven letters written to the visiting Chinese premier, setting out his own vision of the Indian Dream.

Early in the book, Balram eulogises that in modern, free India, the path to social advancement is open to all. We learn soon enough that nothing could be further from the truth - not only are Muslims and women actively discriminated against in the workplace and society at large, but Balram himself, a male Hindu, is destined to a life of lowly servitude due to his breeding.

The voice of the narrator is so clear and immediate that the reader can easily forget this book is not actually written in the first person - we certainly feel like we get inside Balram's head. And it's quite a place to be. The book delivers many laugh-out-loud moments, and it is in the lingering middle section of the book, where we see Balram living the big city servant life, that is perhaps most memorable and revealing to a Western audience.

The phrase "Developing World" has usually been a euphemism but it would seem that in Adiga's view, India is one of several countries standing on the brink of becoming genuine global powers in a multi-polar world. The Left-Right politics evoked in this novel hark back to an era long past in the West, but in the truly developing world, we cannot assume that these arguments will have the same denouement. All options are wide open - which route will India choose?

THE SECRET SCRIPTURE BY SEBASTIAN BARRY

Pam Mungroo
Reviewed by: Pam Mungroo

This is not a novel I would have chosen to read. It's a good story - a story about the perception of truth and the destruction of Roseanne Clear's life because of others' religious judgement of her: an overly pious priest and a mother-in-law determined to hide from her own past.

It has most of the necessary elements of a good story - strong prose, love, betrayal and tragedy, but, in my opinion, it lacks vibrancy.

By the time the strands of the story converged to reveal the life changing climax, I no longer cared. The drudgery and agony of the life forced onto Roseanne was unpleasant, but the character of Dr Grene was, perhaps unintentionally, painfully weak-chinned; his was a story of self-destruction and self-pity.

The story was too contrived even for a novel, it simply never took off, the pace was slow and yet the conclusion seemed to be rushed, almost as though the author himself wanted the dirge to end.

SEA OF POPPIES BY AMITAV GHOSH

Tom Bainton
Reviewed by: Tom Bainton

Sea of Poppies is set in India in the mid-19th Century, during the Opium Wars between Britain and China. A diverse and vivid group of characters are introduced and the story follows their journey to join a ship, the Ibis. Each of their respective journeys that lead them to the ship are interwoven beautifully, keeping you immersed in the book at every step of the way.

More than anything, the language in the novel places you firmly in a time and place, and will appeal to all linguaphiles. Ghosh may yet be single-handedly responsible for a resurgence in the use of such terms as "cacatorium" and "puckrow".

The novel is clearly the first of what will be the Ibis trilogy, and it's not until three-quarters of the way in that we are actually on the ship, with more plenty of plot to still be resolved in the following books. Whether this affects its award chances has yet to be seen, but I for one will be first in line to get the next two instalments.

THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS BY LINDA GRANT

Joan Harvey
Reviewed by: Joan Harvey

In 1970s London, Vivien, the child of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, rediscovers her "evil" uncle and (unbeknown to her parents) works as his secretary recording his life story; this constitutes the focus of the story.

There are political undercurrents throughout: fascism, the Nazis, the communist era in Hungary and the National Front in the UK. But whilst Vivien is fighting fascism, her punk boyfriend is attacked by her uncle, who subsequently suffers several strokes. And thus the book returns to its starting point in the clothes shop with Vivien and the black woman who was her uncle's fiancee.

The book draws you in, then pushes you away again. The two husbands, the boyfriend and Vivien's daughters are all rather distant and we never really know them. Vivien herself seems shy yet sexually precocious, old beyond her years yet immature.

The uncle somehow reminded me of Danny DeVito as a godfather, but in the end, even though his character was inspired by notorious 1960s landlord Peter Rachman, one was left feeling that he was perhaps not such a bad sort, actually quite likeable and really a victim of his circumstances rather than just a greedy landlord milking homeless immigrants about whom nobody cared.

Very readable but not good value for money at 12.

THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY BY PHILIP HENSHER

Jen Skinner
Reviewed by: Jen Skinner

The Northern Clemency is a tale chronicling two families' lives in Sheffield during the early 1970s through to the mid 1990s.

Unusually, Hensher does not focus on the strikes and the violence, hardship and poverty that surrounded Sheffield. Subsequently, he doesn't give total justice to the social upheaval that so many mining communities experienced at this time.

Opening at a party, food, furniture and clothes are described meticulously, so you are left in no doubt that you've arrived in the early to mid-1970s. The characters are cleverly introduced, courtesy of the curtain-twitching neighbours. Hensher uses similar TV and style references throughout the book which act as nostalgic mnemonic devices.

I was on the verge of tears at several points, due to feelings of frustration at the situations in which the characters find themselves. The first chapter was the most riveting, with a much easier flow to it than the rest of the novel. The book is a compulsive read, however at points I found it overly-descriptive.

A FRACTION OF THE WHOLE BY STEVE TOLTZ

Jenny Potter
Reviewed by: Jenny Potter

A wonderful, engaging and powerful story of love and loss.

A bizarre adventure that crosses continents; the Australian bush, bohemian Paris and the jungle of Thailand in the company of sensitive and sympathetically observed characters.

A moderately-deranged father, Martin, and his uneasily bonded but forgiving son, Jasper, together with Martin's nemesis of a brother, Terry - a much loved Australian vigilante, are accompanied by Harry West, career criminal, Eddy, the friend who is too good to be true, and the "love interests" Caroline, Astrid and Anouk.

All these neon-bright and charcoal-black characters contribute to this pacey, brilliant and totally original debut novel.

However, it is the power of the prose that makes it so outstanding. Tender but pathetic, extremely funny in a laugh-out-loud way, philosophical but of the modern world.

A creme brulee of a book - delicious and very rich, hence to read 700 pages in a week was just plain greedy! I am now re-reading it SLOWLY. A winner in every way!




SEE ALSO
First-timers seeking Booker glory
09 Sep 08 |  Entertainment
At-a-glance: Booker shortlist 2008
10 Oct 08 |  Entertainment
Rushdie wins Best of Booker prize
10 Jul 08 |  Entertainment
How do you win a Booker prize?
10 Jul 08 |  Entertainment
Portillo chairs Booker Prize jury
18 Dec 07 |  Entertainment

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