Saturday, 31 October 2009

update October 2009

# of books read in October: 6

Cumulative total: 50 (target met! yay!)

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
5. Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
6. The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)
7. The Comedy of Errors (William Shakespeare)
8. The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)
9. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko)
10. A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)
11. The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)
12. Le CV de Dieu (Jean-Louis Fournier)
13. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)
14. The Music of Silence (Andrea Bocelli)
15. Love (Toni Morrison)
16. Class: The Secret Diary of a Teacher in Turmoil (Jane Beaton)
17. The Wives of Bath (Susan Swan)
18. The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)
19. The Queen and I (Sue Townsend)
20. Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden)
21. Daisy Miller (Henry James)
22. The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton Ellis)
23. Gods Behaving Badly (Marie Phillips)
24. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
25. The Crucible (Arthur Miller)
26. The British Museum is Falling Down (David Lodge)
27. them (Joyce Carol Oates)
28. Flaubert's Parrot (Julian Barnes)
29. Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (Sue Townsend)
30. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
31. Tears of Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath (Michael and Elizabeth Norman)
32. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams)
33. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
34. Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
35. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
36. The Nigger of the Narcissus (Joseph Conrad)
37. The Past is Myself (Christabel Bielenberg)
38. The Road Ahead (Christabel Bielenberg)
39. The Other Hand (Chris Cleave)
40. Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
41. The Rules of Engagement (Anita Brookner)
42. Cat's Eye (Margaret Atwood)
43. Three Men In A Boat (Jerome K Jerome)
44. La grammaire est une chanson douce (Erik Orsenna)
45. The Kabul Beauty School (Deborah Rodriguez)
46. Bonfire of the Brands (Neil Boorman)
47. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)
48. Hotel du Lac (Anita Brookner)
49. Girl Meets Boy (Ali Smith)
50. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewycka) - review forthcoming

Average number of books per month: 5

% by male authors: 50%
% by female authors: 50%

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewycka)

--The blurb--
"Two years after his wife dies, Nikolai, a Ukrainian who migrated to London after the Second World War, meets and falls for Valentina, a fellow Ukrainian who is nearly 50 years his junior. His daughters, Vera and Nadia, who have had a poor relationship with each other since their mother died, suspect Valentina of being after Nikolai’s money and of wanting a way to ensure that she and her son can remain in the West. Valentina is brash and manipulative, but she unites the previously feuding Vera and Nadia in their desire to have her removed back home. As a result of their renewed contact with each other, Nadia learns of family secrets."

--The review--
In setting us up with an outwardly classic scenario (old man falls for bimbo barely half his age), one could be forgiven for thinking that this might be a predictable or boring read. However, even from the unconventional title itself, Lewycka immediately shows us that this is not the case at all, and from the novel's first moments, the traditional Ukraine collides with modern-day Britain with a crash.

None of the characters are painted as angels; they all have their very realistic faults. While Vera and Nadia come across as being fairly normal, they are contrasted by the extreme caricatures in the forms of Valentina and their father. This is realistic and well-sustained as well as being imbued with pathos when appropriate; and, despite the fact that all characters come from the same foreign country, and despite the fact of Valentina and Nikolai likely having the same level of English, and Vera and Nadia sharing a similar level too, the dialogue never becomes two-dimensional, with Lewycka managing to maintain distinct personalities and unwavering mastery of dialect. The novel is very sensory and visual as a result, thanks to this successful development of character as the foreground to the often murky physical settings.

Equally, pace and humour play their part, and it becomes easy to see how this novel propelled Marina Lewycka to seemingly overnight acclaim. The reader becomes tranfixed by the text, wanting to see the novel through to its (highly fitting) end. While the ways in which Lewycka transforms the basic situation make it unique, it still remains grounded enough for readers to see places, circumstances, and even people that they know in the novel's web. Even though extracts from Nikolai's book (from which the title comes) can drag a bit, and seem dry in comparison to the rest of the novel, one suspects that this was exactly Lewycka's intention. The result is a compelling, amusing read that should hook even the most cynical onto the author's work; I certainly look forward to dipping my toe into more.

Other works by Marina Lewycka
Two Caravans (2007)
We Are All Made of Glue (2009)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Exercices de style (Raymond Queneau)

--The blurb--
"On a crowded bus at midday, Raymond Queneau observes one man accusing another of jostling him deliberately. When a seat is vacated, the first man appropriates it. Later, in another part of town, Queneau sees the man being advised by a friend to sew another button on his overcoat. "Exercises in Style" retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times in ninety-nine different styles. An 'Abusive' chapter heartily deplores the events, 'Opera English' lends them grandeur. Raymond Queneau rendered Barbara Wright (the English translator) his 'heartiest congratulations', adding, 'I have always thought that nothing is untranslatable. Here is new proof'."

--The review--
While a great deal of foreign literature is translated, it often remains a niche interest, with very few people being aware of the authors and works in question. Raymind Queneau is one of these hidden gems, being in his lifetime a prolific poet and essayist as well as academic and author. He has not even risen to stardom significantly more following the publication of a graphical version of Exercices de style by Matt Madden four years ago. So how does such a successful French author remain so minor when his works are translated into English?

Queneau relies heavily, in several of his works, upon wordplay, which may not always translate well or hold appeal for a wider audience. Others may not resonate well with the sense of humour of other countries, or run the risk of seeming so pretentious that they pass the regular reader by. Liking some of Queneau's novels perhaps relies on a love for the surreal or absurd, and none of these qualities build up a picture of an author whose works might be lovable in any sort of mainstream way. Certainly Exercices de style, one of his most well-known works, is best when taken in small doses. The repetitive nature of its construct means there is no narrative thread as such that needs to be followed each time the book is picked up. However, despite the repetitive nature of it, there is, perhaps surprisingly, always something new to find.

Queneau is consistently innovative and imaginative throughout this novella, not only employing voices that will appeal to linguists (the past and present tenses, subjunctive mood, and passive voice appear to name but a few), but also those that appeal to a wider range of interests (such as the chapters centred on gastronomic, zoological, and medical themes). As a classicist I was especially tickled by the chapter on Hellenicisms. This keeps the central, very simple narrative interesting, lacing the story with surprising variety.

The author's style is therefore something of the unexpected. It's unrealistic to expect any work of art to appeal to everyone, but there should be something in this to reach out to a good 90%. It's relatively short, and yet contains a great enough multitude of perspectives to keep readers returning. A great, accessible and slightly wacky introduction to the unconventional Queneau which will take any adventurous reader on a great journey.

Other works by Raymond Queneau
Witch Grass (1933)
The Last Days (1936)
Children of Clay (1938)
A Hard Winter (1939)
Pierrot (1942)
The Skin of Dreams (1944)
We Always Treat Women Too Well (1947)
The Sunday of Life (1952)
Zazie in the Metro (1959)
The Blue Flowers (1965)
The Flight of Icarus (1968)

Girl Meets Boy (Ali Smith)

--The blurb--
"Girl meets boy. It's a story as old as time. But what happens when an old story meets a brand new set of circumstances? Ali Smith's re-mix of Ovid's most joyful metamorphosis is a story about the kind of fluidity that can't be bottled and sold. It is about girls and boys, girls and girls, love and transformation, a story of puns and doubles, reversals and revelations. Funny and fresh, poetic and political, Girl meets boy is a myth of metamorphosis for the modern world."

--The review--
Gender and sexuality are topics that are of perennial significance across the history of literature, with everyone from the Ancient Greeks to Caryl Churchill joining in. The Ancient Greeks, though (since I've picked on them, I might as well carry on), often only referred to the inversion of gender and sexuality in vague, metaphorical terms, with anything more overt, such as cross-dressing, being a specific means to an end (in Aristophanes' Women at the Thesmophoria, for instance, the men dress up, but only to get into a women-only event in order to eavesdrop on the female gossip). Shakespeare continues to use this device mainly only for direct trickery and deception (think of Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice to name just two plays where he does this). Modern literature, though, is perhaps getting less comic in its treatment of gender, sexuality, and role reversals thereof: Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine is funny, but tragic in equal measure, and novels such as Charlie Anders' Choir Boy involve deeper contemplation of sexual identity than the superficial level of mere comedic trickery.

Ali Smith's latest attempt, Girl Meets Boy, also asks more serious questions about what we were and are, and if it really matters, updating the myth of Iphis with startling clarity. The novella's first line is arresting, and the first chapter abounds with contemporary references to television shows, which would normally irritate me, but in this case does not, possibly due to its more natural and relevant (rather than contrived and irrelevant) state. The story has momentum and the settings are realistic as well as being blackly funny. The person who changes everything in the story, Robin, is daring, adventurous, and yet altogether human (though admittedly there is something ethereal or otherworldly about the character too).

Smith is adept with words and is able to keep the reader's attention by being concise, thought-provoking and occasionally witty, bringing the narrative to a satisfying close. The quality of her work not only allows her to secure a place as one of the rising stars of contemporary literature, but this in tandem with her participation in the Canongate Myths series also means that her work is emblematic of the rejuvenation of classical legends in modern times, along with equally staunchly feminist authors such as Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson (who are, perhaps unfairly, rather better known). She achieves her aims while successfully utilising the "write what you know" principle, but not in the lacklustre way of, for example, Alan Hollinghurst. Smith, in conjunction with her contemporaries, uses her work to show us that the way we talk about ourselves and our identities is something that matters, and with Smith and other authors only being at the genesis of explicit discussion of gender and sexuality (Winterson's groundbreaking Oranges are not the Only Fruit was only published in 1985, Churchill arguably being the trailblazer in 1979), we are perhaps at the beginning of a highly significant phase in literary genres.

Other works by Ali Smith
Like (1997)
Hotel World (2001)
The Accidental (2005)

Saturday, 10 October 2009

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)

--The blurb--
"Boisterous, ribald, and ultimately shattering, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the seminal novel of the 1960s that has left an indelible mark on the literature of our time. Here is the unforgettable story of a mental ward and its inhabitants, especially the tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the brawling, fun-loving new inmate who resolves to oppose her. We see the struggle through the eyes of Chief Bromden, the seemingly mute half-Indian patient who witnesses and understands McMurphy's heroic attempt to do battle with the awesome powers that keep them all imprisoned."
Blurb from

--The review--
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a novel that consistently appears not only in lists of the best novels ever written but also in lists of books that have attracted controversy. This combination of popularity and provocation makes me wonder why I didn't read it before, and it did not disappoint.

That's not to say this is an easy novel: with complex sentences, dense fields of text, and many an abstract idea to absorb, this poses an intellectual challenge as well as confronting us emotionally with horrific scenes of the treatments used in mental hospitals at this time. It's also difficult to realise what exactly is wrong with the Chief mentally, if indeed anything; Kesey approaches the Chief's thoughts with such sensitivity and realism that they can seem almost normal to us.

However, there's plenty to make this approachable, too, despite the novel's combination of intellect and gruesomeness: the diversity of the characters in the novel is to be commended, as is the ease with which readers can visualise them. Kesey keeps the pace, matching the Chief's languorous thoughts and visions with events that are hilarious and intimidating in equal measure. Kesey also grounds himself as a key influence in literature that is to come on the subject of mental illness: echoes of his work can be seen in Clare Allan's Poppy Shakespeare, to give just one example.

Equilibrium is continuously disrupted in the novel, with Kesey leaving us quite often not knowing what to expect next, although perhaps not with the same intensity of twists and turns as in Roald Dahl's short stories for adults. The ending, though, is fitting, balancing out the arguable injustice of McMurphy's fate with the eerie calm of Chief Bromden's.

Other works by Ken Kesey
Sometimes A Great Notion (1964)
Caverns (1989)
Sailor Song (1992)
Last Go Round (1994; with Ken Babbs)

Hotel du Lac (Anita Brookner)

--The blurb--
"Edith Hope (a.k.a. romance author Veronica Wilde) has been banished by her friends to a stately hotel in Switzerland. During her stay she befriends some of the other guests, each of whom has his or her own tale. Edith struggles to come to terms with her career and love--the lack, the benefits, and the meaning thereof."

--The review--
The Booker Prize judges don't always get it right - they're only human, after all - but after reading the frankly insipid The Rules of Engagement, also by Brookner, I was very much hoping that the Booker judges hadn't put the prize's name on something similarly forgettable in Hotel du Lac.

They admittedly had a very tough decision ahead of them in 1984, with the prize's shortlist exclusively containing big names (JG Ballard, Anita Desai, David Lodge, Julian Barnes, and Penelope Lively) with proven track records. Some might argue straight off that the wildly successful Empire of the Sun (Ballard) and the accomplished Flaubert's Parrot ought to have won over Brookner's efforts; both of these have perhaps won the public's hearts to a greater degree and enjoyed a more enduring or obvious legacy. But the election of Hotel du Lac to the winner's post for that year is not so abstruse; there are a great many positives to this short novel.

As well as being well-structured (having any novel divided into readable chunks is always a plus point), Brookner's characterisation and her setup of the scenario is immediately more intriguing than in The Rules of Engagement. The characters are not numerous, but they are colourful and eccentric, contrasting well with the serenity of the accompanying landscape, and there is plenty in them to both attract and anger the reader. Edith's purpose in being there is gracefully unfolded and Brookner sets up a deft twist by leading readers to expect Edith's time at the hotel to end predictably, before sending them in another direction completely. This surprising volte-face shows another side to Brookner's prose that makes her work instantly more appealing, and while her characters are not the most immediately comprehensible or likeable, the combination of such personages along with an almost paradisiacal setting and a precise plot is certainly a winning package with, one could posit, a far more universal allure than the other novels in the 1984 shortlist.

Bonfire of the Brands: How I Learned to Live Without Labels (Neil Boorman)

--The blurb--
"What do you do when you wake up and realise that your life has been an empty pursuit of the superficial and the trend-driven? That your identity and value systems are based upon a brand hierarchy of your own creation? On 17th September 2006, in Finsbury Square, East London, Neil Boorman burnt all his branded items. The ones that wouldn't burn, he destroyed with a sledgehammer. The event was the culmination of a long process of self-examination, and of the brand-dominated world in which we live, recorded in a popular and controversial blog online. As a product of a generation that has been sold to since birth Neil examines the social, historical, economic and psychological ways in which brands have gripped our society, as well as documenting his personal trials and tribulations as he tries to live a life without brands. How will he cope without a hit of his Crackberry? Will he feel naked without his Nike, Gucci, and, of course, Marlboro?"

--The review--
A burgeoning trend in the book market, readers are seeing ever more of the "let's-do-something-crazy-and-then-write-a-book-about-it" genre. Ranging from trading a paperclip all the way up to a house, to trying to live without money for a year, one might be forgiven for thinking that the market has by now been saturated by these increasingly crazy ideas. This format certainly continues to work well on television too, particularly through the inimitable Justin Lee Collins, and this effort by Neil Boorman shows no sign of the genre's momentum slowing.

There are several reasons for the popularity of the format: they usually take place within a set time period, allowing readers' (and viewers', if we also consider TV) attention to be kept by the attraction of a quick resolution; the out-of-the-ordinary focus also fulfils its purpose, which is to draw people in and keep them there; and, furthermore, the zaniness makes a nice change from misery lit and vampire stories. The central protagonist is perhaps by default engaging (or even an annoying character will inflame readers' and viewers' opinions and still keep them interested) and may often attract media attention, which can further boost sales and viewing figures by capturing the attention of people who may not otherwise bother with such stories. Plus, as human beings, we all like a challenge and want to see the main character succeed (or at least show cojones in trying). But, nevertheless, Boorman is still one of a few key players in this genre (alongside Kyle Macdonald, Danny Wallace, Dave Gorman, and others), and there are several reasons for this.

Perhaps crucially, the challenge chronicled in Bonfire of the Brands not only received an encouraging amount of publicity (in established broadsheets as well as on television, online, and on the radio), but is also highly interdisciplinary in itself, both aspects of which combine to attract the widest possible audience. It is psychological and personal as well as being crusading and humorous; it also refers to modern history and grabs modern people in the crotch, perhaps unveiling aspects of human nature and our dependency on consumerism that arguably not everybody wants to hear or think about. Opposition to Boorman's principal idea is also described at length in Bonfire of the Brands, and admittedly it is difficult to grasp the sheer waste of burning and destroying stuff that still worked perfectly well and could have been put to constructive use elsewhere. But Boorman has thought his response through: as well as being pretty dramatic, he also points out that by (say) giving away his possessions to charity instead, this merely allows obsessions with brands to continue circulating and permeating, rather than making the more suitable statement of destroying them completely and showing that human dependency on brands should be lessened.

Boorman's book, therefore, rather than just being funny or crazy like others in the genre, demarcates itself as being different by challenging not only the author (we are shown everything from Boorman's subsequent depression at having given away everything, including television and video games, to the hate mail he receives online, to his nicotine withdrawal) but also the readers. This not only represents an intellectual challenge (there's some fairly deep psychological and socio-historical and cultural analysis in there that mean you have to focus more than you might expect for a book of this genre) but also a challenge to the status quo: Boorman shows that you don't just have to accept what's around you, and that if you are determined enough, you can reject it if you want to. The end of the book is consistent with moving ahead into a new phase of life, but in a far less schmaltzy and more fitting way than the end of Kyle Macdonald's One Red Paperclip; the overall result is that in its provision of a simultaneous social and personal history, this book stands out from the crowd both in its genre and generally (although the brightly burning picture of Nike trainers on the front cover is probably helpful too).

The Kabul Beauty School (Deborah Rodriguez)

--The blurb--
"Soon after the fall of the Taliban, in 2001, Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan as part of a group offering humanitarian aid to this war-torn nation. Surrounded by men and women whose skills–as doctors, nurses, and therapists–seemed eminently more practical than her own, Rodriguez, a hairdresser and mother of two from Michigan, despaired of being of any real use. Yet she soon found she had a gift for befriending Afghans, and once her profession became known she was eagerly sought out by Westerners desperate for a good haircut and by Afghan women, who have a long and proud tradition of running their own beauty salons. Thus an idea was born. With the help of corporate and international sponsors, the Kabul Beauty School welcomed its first class in 2003. Well meaning but sometimes brazen, Rodriguez stumbled through language barriers, overstepped cultural customs, and constantly juggled the challenges of a postwar nation even as she learned how to empower her students to become their families’ breadwinners by learning the fundamentals of coloring techniques, haircutting, and makeup. Yet within the small haven of the beauty school, the line between teacher and student quickly blurred as these vibrant women shared with Rodriguez their stories and their hearts: the newlywed who faked her virginity on her wedding night, the twelve-year-old bride sold into marriage to pay her family’s debts, the Taliban member’s wife who pursued her training despite her husband’s constant beatings. Through these and other stories, Rodriguez found the strength to leave her own unhealthy marriage and allow herself to love again, Afghan style. With warmth and humor, Rodriguez details the lushness of a seemingly desolate region and reveals the magnificence behind the burqa. Kabul Beauty School is a remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom."

--The review--
As armed forces from around the world do battle in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's only natural that those who have not seen the countries for themselves want an insight into the lives of the people there, which provides a lucrative opportunity for publishers. Just a few of the books centred on the area and its people include The Bookseller of Kabul, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and The Kite Runner. And here, in the form of The Kabul Beauty School, comes another missive with the potential to propel its author to the front of the world stage.

Or so it would be, were it not for the fact that the novel is disappointingly ghostwritten. Rodriguez by no means takes all of the responsibility for her work, publishing a thinly veiled acknowledgement just before the novel commences. This acknowledgement does not stop the fact that it's ghostwritten from being a letdown; but nevertheless, as promised, humour, warmth and genuineness spill over into all aspects of the prose and story, with plenty to incite readers to continue, including highly visual locations and characters and dramatic events. The opening scene is horrifying and bound to make many readers wince, and from the very first page, no details are spared, including the abuse suffered by the beauty school's attendees and the threats that Deborah and the school themselves face.

Deborah herself makes a promising main character, proving herself to be very human, likeable and spirited, without being at all annoying. The storyline does not lack momentum or structure, and this only helps in making the novel accessible to a wide range of readers. The compulsion to know what happens next is likely the key to the book's success: even if a book is ghostwritten, ultimately what many readers want is a lively book with thrust and a decent storyline, and this is, happily, what you get with Rodriguez's effort.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Bookish Bits & Bobs: The Man Booker Prize 2009

The Booker Prize has always been a real rollercoaster ride, invoking strong feelings of love and hate for particular books in the hearts and minds of Anglophone readers the world over. I was surprised, then, to find that upon reading the summaries of the shortlisted books on the BBC, I was not immediately drawn to any of them in particular, as I had been in previous years.

Compounding this somewhat tepid reaction was the fact that there were no previews available on Amazon, Google Books, or any other immediately obvious website, so that people could judge more quickly and easily which of the shortlist they might like to buy or which one they thought should win. This year's shortlist featured a few previous winners, such as AS Byatt and JM Coetzee, and the shortlist and longlist together also revealed a large number of previously shortlisted authors, such as Sarah Waters, Sarah Hall, and William Trevor. So, given a shortlist of such credentials and reputation, why did none of the shortlist really stand out for me?

AS Byatt's "Possession" enraptured many a reader, and she has won the Booker before. However, initial impressions of the nominated The Children's Book are of pretension, and Amazon reviewers complain of a lack of purpose, although others compensate by praising its comparative accessibility when compared to Byatt's previous novels. Describing a family on the tipping point between an Edwardian summer and a post-war world, via history, politics and other themes, this 'cultural history disguised as a novel' may be what let Byatt down when it came to the crunch. It is difficult to judge a book without having read the whole thing, but flicking through a copy at my local bookshop today, no phrases or ideas really seemed to jump off the pages at me or made me want to read on.

JM Coetzee is another previous winner and it's easy to see why he was in the running again with Summertime - not just due to the British love of the memoir but also due to his precedent for high standards. It is the third in a trilogy (preceded by the unceremoniously-nicked-from-Tolstoy titles, Boyhood and Youth), so may be difficult to read as a stand-alone work or for others to pick up without having read the other parts of the trilogy. Reviewers describe it as unconventional, clever, and well-written, and it is possibly the most intriguing novel on the shortlist, along with Simon Mawer's efforts.

Adam Foulds' The Quickening Maze, along with Mawer's shortlisted novel, was the only one that I was unable to get any sort of preview of at all (unfortunately the bookshop I visited did not have it in stock). While lauded for its minimalistic and atmospheric beauty, Amazon reviewers also lambast it for its disjointed and confused purpose, which makes it sound like the idea started well, but that the author got lost along the way. Happily, with the poet John Clare at its centre, these criticisms are not enough to put me off sampling it completely.

Despite the lack of preview available, Simon Mawer's The Glass Room strikes me as being the most inventive, original and historic novel on this year's Booker shortlist, covering old ground in a new way. Glass has also long been a successful motif in many classic texts, so when all of these things are considered, it is difficult to see why this was not one of the favourites to win (especially since the people have spoken, with the book achieving a high average of 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon). The only reason I can possibly think of is that the British public is perhaps slightly tired of stories featuring Nazi Germany (thanks to a restrictive history curriculum in school, this is often one of the only eras that young adults are really aware of in any detail).

Sarah Waters' early work proved itself to be good, but as time has gone on, the novelist's work has become repetitive across the years. She has been nominated for the prize before (Tipping The Velvet, The Night Watch) but lost out. Thankfully, there are no lesbians in her latest effort, entitled The Little Stranger. Reviews of the novel are very mixed: some laud Waters' skills of pace and atmosphere, while others criticise it; many point out a decline in general Waters standard over the years. All seem to agree, though, that it is beautifully structured. This polarisation among readers may be what cost Waters the prize.

Before moving on to the eventual winner, though, it seems timely to give some attention to a few longlisters who missed out. William Trevor justly attracted critical acclaim in 2002 with his haunting and readable The Story of Lucy Gault, which was shortlisted for the Booker that year. Reading the synopsis of Love and Summer (longlisted this year), though, it is clear that while Trevor writes exquisitely, this novel is perhaps more likely to be something read by bored housewives. One Amazon reviewer points out, I think quite correctly, that this latest effort is like many other nondescript Irish novels, is unmemorable, and is ultimately only squeezed out of old ideas. In the face of this, it is hardly surprising that Trevor ultimately didn't make the cut when compared to the standard of the other novels that made it onto the shortlist.

The next omission, though, is far more surprising and glaring. Like Trevor, Sarah Hall has also been shortlisted before (in 2004) and lost out: her The Electric Michelangelo was a safe rival to the bookies' favourite that year (David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas), and the fact that they both lost the prize to Alan Hollinghurst is arguably a travesty. It is therefore doubly a shame that Hall was left off the shortlist with How To Paint A Dead Man, which proves itself in its preview on Amazon to be highly accomplished, and rendered even more unusual by Hall's employment of the second person in her writing. I'm glad to see she's still on form, and am sure that eventually she'll have her moment in the sun.

But we must put all of this aside to come to the eventual winner, and bookies' favourite, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. A true opus, this weighty tome is definitely something to get stuck into on an autumn afternoon. Brits love all things Tudor (cf. restrictive history curriculum remark) and have lately become enamoured with Margaret George's latest offering, which centres around aspects of the life of Elizabeth I, precisely for this reason, despite having shown little or no interest in her before. This is probably why Wolf Hall was set to win and duly won, although the book has not been immune to criticism from Amazon reviewers - those who did not enjoy the work cite its length, tedium and writing style as reasons why. It is perhaps a little disconcerting that neither of the left-out longlisters that I mentioned, nor the two lesser-known shortlist authors (Mawer and Foulds) had their works figure on the shelves of my local bookshop, which makes me wonder if perhaps it's really the bookshops after all who decide who should win. However, the propulsion to the number one spot in British book charts that Booker winners often enjoy means that Mantel's winning wonder is sure to provide an anchor to many a Christmas stocking this winter.