Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Thomas Allen 2011)
This is a story of the death of jazz at the dawn of Nazism in Germany. The name 'Half-Blood Blues' takes its inspiration from the book's hero and a jazz legend in the making Hieronymous 'Hiero' Falk is just nineteen when he starts playing with the 'Hot Time Swingers' alongside Charles 'Chip Jones and Sidney 'Sid' Griffiths, the narrator of the tale. The son of a German woman and a French African brought in to marshal the Rheinland after that part of Germany was ceded to France after the Treaty of Versailles. Hiero is a half-breed or 'mischling'.
The story is set both in the 1940s in Berlin and Paris as the Trio try to stay one step ahead of Hitler's ever advancing army but also in the 1990s in a newly reunited Germany at a concert in Hiero's honour. At the heart of the story is the secret Sid harbours as to how Hiero's fate was sealed.
I didn't expect to enjoy this book and it starts slowly but it is a tale that draws you in. Literary takes on music rarely seem to work but Edugyan is able to render the atmosphere of 1940s jazz, the language of the trio and banter between them feels authentic. The plot is a little weak to sustain the length and the potentially most interesting of the characters, Hiero, is the least well developed but by the end of the book they seem like minor complaints as is the rather random and quite pointless inclusion of Louis Armstrong who makes an appearance. A more major complaint on my behalf is that the list price for this trade paperback is $24.95 which seems like daylight robbery especially since the text is littered with typos and printing errors; if you're going to charge that much then at least earn it with some better proofreading. However I shall not hold the publisher's problems against the author.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone Press 2011)
This is one of the more unlikely picks for the Booker prize longlist, published by a small publishing house in the highlands Scotland and extraordinarily difficult to purchase if you live in North America where this particular book has no distribution deal. Set not far in to the future a virus has spread affecting the entire world's population, some sort of cross between Aids and CJD, the effects of which are that any woman who gets pregnant soon develops a rather unfortunate Swiss cheese effect on her brain and dies before the infant can come to term.
In what could be described as a cross between Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' and Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' the novel is told by the eponymous sixteen year old Jessie Lamb, in part as a remembrance of events past and in part first person narrative of Jessie, locked up by her geneticist father for her decision to volunteer to be a 'sleeping beauty': a sacrificial lamb who accepts an unaffected frozen embryo and is put into a coma giving just enough time for proper gestation.
The book details a world falling apart millions of women perish and world faces the prospect of no new human life on the planet. Society fractures as religious, feminist, youth and animal rights groups try to force their agenda through ever more militant methods. It is a world in which future prospects are gloomy and any solutions no matter how extreme are considered.
As I mentioned above, this isn't typical Booker territory and you would be hard pushed to find anyone who would contend that this is one of the thirteen best eligible books of this year. The structure of the book is unfortunate as it essentially tells you how the book will end right from the beginning, the characters of Jessie's parents are poorly developed and the mood of the novel is unfalteringly dire, okay the last criticism could well be used against any dystopian literature. It is an interesting concept for a book but I'm afraid it's just not quite good enough for Booker material and I can't see it making the short list.
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador 2011)
The Stranger's Child is a book about the way a literary reputation changes over the years as social mores about behaviour and sexual proclivity change and as biographers and critics become more cut-throat in getting to the juiciest of secrets that will bolster their own literary reputation.
The totemic event of the book is the visit of the upper-class gentleman Cecil Valance, already a budding poetic talent, to the home of his Cambridge schoolmate George Sawle at their family pile Two Acres. George and Cecil's rather close attentions are rather thwarted that weekend by the close attentions of George's younger sister Daphne who is never far away, whether during skinny-dipping antics by the lake or frolicking in the hammock.
Flash forward a few years and Cecil has died, perished in the Great War but his reputation now blossoming as those who were present at Two Acres during Cecil's visit are assembled as a family friend, the rather tame and friendly Sebastian Stokes, gathers the sources for his unchallenging and safe biography. But as the years go by we see different volumes of his life and his letters, what truly happened between Cecil, George and Daphne becomes more distant, the more it is analysed.
This is a truly beautiful book. Cecil Valance is a Rupert Brooke/Siegfried Sassoon type Edwardian poet, perhaps not a genius of style but the creator of memorable lines who finds a place at the heart of a Bloomsbury Group style of Britishness: repressed homosexuality and upper-class excess. The book is set in five sections and in each as they get further from the original event we are not just treated to different social settings, mores and nuances but each adds to the complexity of the whole.
I cannot imagine how much planning this novel took but Hollinghurst is a master of prose and creativity at the height of his powers. The Booker Prize can only now be between this and Barnes's 'The Sense of an Ending' and I'm glad it's not my decision.
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards (Oneworld Publications 2011)
Fourteen years ago Jinx witnesses the horrific murder of her mother in their flat in the Pemsbury Estate in Hackney, London. It's an event that will blight her future relationship with her future husband and child and force her into semi-obscurity, feeling most comfortable with the cadavers she tends at the mausoleum where she works.
One evening Lemon, an old friend of her mothers, turns up unannounced with news to break. But there's more, and over an weekend of alcohol, music and sumptuous Montserratian cuisine they revisit the events that led up to the fateful night.
Although set in and around my old stomping grounds in London around Hackney Downs and Dalston Kingsland I did not expect to like this book. For a start it is littered with ridiculous name: Jinx, Lemon and Red, names which proffer and unnecessary distraction. However as the book went on I found myself wanting to know where it was going and even enjoying the process. The descriptions of the male characters, especially Berris and Lemon are well developed and harken back to a timeless sense of style, and the descriptions of the food had me salivating.
It isn't in conventional booker territory so I would be surprised to see it going through to the shortlist but for a first time effort by Yvette Edwards, it isn't half bad.
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (HarperCollins 2011)
Set in 1857 Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of Jaffy, a poor but happy child who wanders the streets of the East End of London, through the mire and the open sewers bare footed without the least concern. When one day he encounters a tiger newly escaped from its captivity he brazenly walks up to pet its nose only to end up in the tiger's mouth. His rescue came in the form of the eponymous Jamrach, an exotic animal dealer who leaps atop the creature and forces its jaws apart. Jamrach's menagerie is a place of wonder filled with Tasmanian devils, all kinds of birds and primates and Jaffy takes a job there where he encounters Jamrach's assistant Tim Linver and Dan Rymer, the salty sea dog/animal tracker responsible for collecting some of Jamrach's more exotic products.
When one day a Mr Fledge comes in and asks that he be supplied a dragon (most likely a Komodo Dragon) Jaffy, Tim and Dan join the crew of one of Mr Fledge's whale boats and set out towards the South Seas in pursuit of their quarry. What follows is a somewhat harrowing tale of torture, starvation and whole lot of pain as things go from terrible to worse in a story partly inspired by the true tale of the Essex (a story which also partly inspired another infamous book of whaling ships, Moby Dick).
It is an intentionally difficult book to read as the author tries to put you into the mindset of the protagonists as they go through some pretty extreme torment and the result is that some chapters go by a great deal slower than the rest (reading a chapter about the doldrums is liable to send one into them oneself). It is a very evocative book and as Jaffy, Tim and Dan suffer, I could feel their pain.
The book is far from perfect. Some of the characters aren't developed well enough such as Skip whose madness is just accepted but never questioned or explained, or Tim who becomes incredibly two-dimensioned once they set foot aboard the whaling ship. Also the ending is a little too rose-coloured as things at last come together in an ending Disney would be proud of. However, these are comparatively minor complaints and I wouldn't be surprised to see this making the Booker Prize shortlist.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (House of Anansi Press 2011)
The narrator, Harri Opoku, is an 11 year old recent Ghanaian immigrant who moved over to England with his mother, aunt Sonia and sister Lydia. They live on the Dell Farm housing estate in South London. When a kid gets stabbed to death outside chicken restaurant, Harri and his CSI loving friend Dean decide that it's their duty to investigate and unearth the killer and on an estate where the Dell Farm Crew rule they are not short of suspects.
The title is something of a play on words referring both to the mixed Ghanaian and South London pidgin of the narrator (words and phrases like 'asweh', 'hutious' and 'advise yourself' abound) and because of his fascination with a wild pigeon who one day flew into their ninth floor flat and from then one believes is watching over him ready to poop on anyone who threatens him. In some of the most clawing and hackneyed passages we are treated the philosophical musings of the pigeon itself.
Reading the booker prize novels has taught me something about myself. Starting with Room last year and now Pigeon English I have learnt that I cannot stand to read narration written from the perspective of a child simply because I believe that a narrative is far too important to be left to such an undeveloped mindset. Harri's thought-processes are so frenetic and changeable one would imagine it giving the novel a certain pace but instead it is just becomes tiring.
Partly inspired by the stabbing of the Nigerian schoolboy Damiola Taylor in 2000 the book taps in on the prevalence of gang culture and knife crime in the council estates of London. Because it is one of few if any novels that attempts to deal with this issue, it is a novel that will do very well whether or not it is artistically merited. It wont be too long before this graces the syllabuses of the United Kingdom and the BBC have already commissioned an adaptation. I also expect it to make it through to the shortlist but sadly I don't think it merits it.
Set in Moscow in the mid-noughties, Snowdrops is the story of Nick Platt is a British Lawyer who when travelling home one night on metro fights off a would be mugger. His intended target is Masha and her younger sister Katya. As Masha and Nick begin to become involved he is introduced to their aunt Tatiana Vladimirovna and finds himself compelled to help out in the sale of her apartment. The other thread of the story is that of Nick's involvement in the financing of an oil project off the coast of Murmansk on the Barents Sea.
The eponymous snowdrops are not just the pretty bulbous early blooming flower - in Moscow slang it is a corpse that only unearth's itself in the thaw following the long Russian winter. As one of the characters of book says, 'in Russia there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories'. True or not, this is most certainly a crime story.'
Overall it is a pretty disappointing book. It is one that continues to promise action and intrigue but never actually delivers upon it. The plot is transparent and the ending easily forseen. The central character is so spineless and amoral that he simply isn't believable and the three threads of the story are essentially the same. Add to this a character called 'the Cossack' who could have stepped out of a cliché spy novel and characterisations of the Russians which verge on the racist mean that there is little good to be said of this book and once again I am left wondering how this made it into the Booker prize long list.