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The books of the Booker

Rebecca Jones
By Rebecca Jones
Arts Correspondent

The winner of the country's leading literary prize, the Man Booker, is announced next week.

In the run up to the award, the Today programme is previewing the six shortlisted novels. Listen to interviews with the authors and extracts from the text below.

THE QUICKENING MAZE by ADAM FOULDS

Adam Foulds

Although he is only 34, Adam Foulds is already a prize-winning novelist and poet.

In 2008 he was named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year for his first novel The Truth About These Strange Times.

Earlier this year he was awarded the Costa Poetry Prize for his narrative poem The Broken Word.

And now his second novel is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Adam Foulds grew up near Epping Forest and as a child he wanted to be a biologist. But, at the age of 15, he changed his mind, when his English teacher suggested he write a poem for a poetry workshop.

Cover for The Quickening Maze

"I knew very quickly that was what I wanted to do," he says. "My life has been shaped by my desire to write."

The Quickening Maze is based on real events.

Set around 1840 in a private mental asylum in Epping Forest on the north east edge of London, it tells the story of the once famous and now foundering nature poet John Clare, who becomes a patient after years of struggling with alcohol and depression.

By a coincidence of literary history another poet, the young Alfred Tennyson, is also living in the area at the same time. The novel follows their stories through a period of seven seasons.

SUMMERTIME by JM COETZEE

JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1940. In the 1960's he moved to London where he worked as a computer programmer and then to America where he taught English at the State University of New York in Buffalo.

After he was denied permanent residence in the United States because of his anti-Vietnam war activism, he returned to South Africa, where he spent nearly thirty years as a writer and Professor of Literature at the University of Cape Town. In 2002 he emigrated to Australia.

JM Coetzee began writing fiction in 1969 and his first novel Dusklands was published in 1974.

He has won the Man Booker Prize twice, in 1983 and 1999 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.

Cover to Sumertime by JM Coetzee

Summertime is the third in a trilogy of fictionalised memoirs, that began with Boyhood and continued with Youth.

It appears to tell the story of JM Coetzee's life in South Africa in the 1970's.

Written as if he is already dead, Coetzee sends an imaginary biographer called Vincent into his past to interview people who knew him - former lovers, colleagues and a cousin.

A portrait emerges of an awkward individual, cold and unlovable. The Man Booker Judges said: "We all came away from reading this book wishing we could write like JM Coetzee, but profoundly grateful that we are not JM Coetzee."

THE LITTLE STRANGER by SARAH WATERS

Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters has been described as a "remarkable story teller" and has now been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times.

She characterised her first three novels, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith, as lesbian Victorian romps.

In her fourth novel, The Night Watch, she turned her attention to World War II, and followed the fortunes of a group of Londoners. But there was a twist. Sarah Waters told their stories in reverse, working backwards from 1947 to 1941.

In The Little Stranger she moves on to explore the post-war period.

The Little Stranger book cover

Although it is described as a chilling ghost story, The Little Stranger is really a book about class.

It charts the collapse of the upper classes in post-war Britain, exhausted by war and haunted by the rise of the working classes.

The novel is set in 1948 in rural Warwickshire. It centres on a grand Georgian house, Hundreds Hall, which is falling apart, along with the landed gentry family who live in it.

The novel is narrated by the local doctor, whose mother worked in the house as a maid when he was a child.

THE CHILDREN'S BOOK by AS BYATT

AS Byatt

AS Byatt is often called the grande dame of British novelists, noted for her unapologetically intellectual writing.

She was educated at a Quaker school in York and studied English at Cambridge, before going on to teach English at University College, London. She left in 1983 to concentrate on writing full-time.

Her first book had been published twenty years earlier and between 1978 and 2002 she wrote four novels known as the Frederica Quartet about the members of a Yorkshire family.

But she is best known for her novel Possession, an academic whodunnit set in the Victorian era, which won the Booker Prize in 1990.

Cover of the Children's Book

If she triumphs again AS Byatt will become the first woman to win the prize twice.

The Children's Book is a multi-layered, sprawling 600-page saga, that follows the fortunes of several families and their friends from 1895 to the beginning of the first world war.

At its centre is Olive Wellwood, a successful children's author, who writes a separate private book for each of her children.

But as well as being about storytelling, The Children's Book is a meticulously researched historical novel, which charts the rise of Fabianism, Anarchism and Feminism.

It is also crammed with detailed descriptions of pottery, puppetry, furnishings and fabrics. It may be called "The Children's Book" but this is definitely not a book for children.

THE GLASS ROOM by SIMON MAWER

Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer may have written eight novels and two works of non-fiction, but his name still remains unfamiliar to many. He thinks that may partly be because he has lived in Italy for the past 30 years, teaching biology at the English School in Rome.

He says he is "very happy" with the exposure that has come from being shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

The son of an RAF pilot, Simon Mawer was born in England and grew up in Cyprus and Malta. Although he had always wanted to be a writer, his first novel was not published until he was 40.

The Glass Room is about a spectacular modern house, built of glass and steel in Czechoslovakia in 1929.

Cover of The Glass Room

It is based on a real house, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno in today's Czech Republic, which was designed by the German architect Mies van der Rohe.

The novel follows the fortunes of those who live in the house during sixty years of Czechoslovakia's turbulent history - from the German occupation in 1939 through the post-war Communist period and beyond.

But The Glass Room is also the story of Victor and Liesl Landauer, the part-Jewish family who built the house, are forced to leave it, but then eventually return.

WOLF HALL by HILARY MANTEL

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel has been described as the best-kept secret in English fiction. Although she has written 11 novels and a memoir, she has largely escaped the attention of literary award judges.

Her novel, Beyond Black was, however, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Orange Prize in 2006.

Now, she is the bookmakers' favourite to win the Man Booker, for Wolf Hall.

She was born near Glossop in Derbyshire in 1952. She studied law at University but started writing in her twenties, partly because of ill health.

"I don't suppose I would have written at all, if my health had been better," she has said "All I was good for was sitting on a sofa with a notebook."

She is currently writing a sequel to her Man Booker nominated novel.

Frontcover of Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is a 650 page epic novel, set in one of the most eventful periods of English history, when Henry VIII divorces Katherine of Aragon, marries Anne Boleyn, breaks with Rome and sets up the Church of England.

But the book is not just another traditional re-telling of Tudor history. Instead, it unfolds through the eyes of one man, Thomas Cromwell.

The son of a blacksmith, he rose to power to become the King's most trusted adviser.

In fiction and drama, Cromwell is traditionally portrayed as a villain, but in Wolf Hall he becomes a much more complex and sympathetic figure.




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