Tag Archives: Man Booker Prize

Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Attwood

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I was curious to read this, having read and enjoyed the much lauded, The Handmaids Tale. I was probably more intrigued to see why The Testaments shared the 2019 Booker Prize with Girl, Woman, Other by Bernandine Evaristo. See my earlier review (https://sckarakaltsas.com/2020/02/21/book-review-girl-woman-other-by-bernadine-evaristo/

First, a bit about the book. It picks up fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, a sequel touting the answers to what happened to Offred. But this isn’t so much the case. Attwood cleverly pieces the narrative through the eyes of three women, although it took me quite a few pages to work that out. We have the elderly Aunt Lydia, (previously a judge before Gilead) who used the system to rise through the ranks. The others are two young women, one in Canada who was a baby refugee from Gilead and the other born and raised within Gilead. The three are involved in Gilead’s downfall.

It makes for interesting reading and like The Handmaid’s Tale is a fascinating look at a dystopian world inspired by past and present tyrannical regimes according to Attwood. The character of Aunt Lydia is quite brilliant in contrast to the two young women, who sounded similar in character, and perhaps that was the point  when we learn about their connection.

I have mixed views about this one. I feel as if it were written purely to satisfy the readers who wanted more from the first book and from the hugely successful television series which I didn’t watch. Did it satisfy those questions? For me, it didn’t because I didn’t yearn for a sequel in the first place. Perhaps I’m being cynical but I wonder if it was written to capitalise on the success because it surely would have been a money spinner.

Did it deserve to win an equal spot with Girl, Woman, Other? I would say no. It is well written as you would expect and it is enjoyable to read. There’s a clever plot with a thrilling finish. But is it the literary masterpiece I’d expected? For me, it wasn’t. But hey, check it for yourself.

Book Review: Snakes and Ladders by Angela Williams



This is a story which is raw, brutal and honest. Angela Williams memoir could almost be fictional and you wish that it was.

Angela with university and teaching credentials stepped out to cross a road and was hit by a postie’s motor bike. Police took down her name and a statement and came back two days later with a warrant for her arrest. There was no court case, no bail opportunity, no appeal, just straight to a correctional facility in handcuffs in front of her dismayed partner and young son. Why? She’d served time for a crime she committed when she was a drug addicted teenager, thirteen years earlier. Except she’d only served five months of it. She was taken away to serve the rest.

I’d seen an interview with Angela on the ABC News less than a month or so ago where she talked about her book which had just launched. My curiosity peaked. I had to read it.
Angela pulls no punches. The introduction warns the reader what to expect.

Let’s take something from the old me and jump in with both feet. Let’s hold our breath when we need to, and laugh when we need to, cry when we need to, eat doughnuts when we need to. I’m here, in the future, holding your hand. I promise it all turns out okay… I drove myself mad to tell you this story, so you damn well better read it.

And once you start reading you can’t stop because no matter how much we see of the old Angela, the prison system, the cruelty of her upbringing and enter her old world, we know it turns out okay. That’s what kept me going. That and the writing, which is wonderful.

Acrid panic froths across the back of my tongue. A glint of burning light off chrome catches my eye. I lock onto this shred of bright, body frozen in place. Crickets chirp in the bag hanging from my hand.

Learning about the women in the modern-day prison system, how it runs, life as a sex worker and drug addict was astonishing at times to read, yet eye-opening. Her own personal journey gives hope.

I couldn’t stop myself from questioning power imbalances, was filled with rage at small inequalities and awed into silences by big ones. But I keep trying, trusting, writing, thinking.

I couldn’t help comparing this book to the Mars Room which is fictional and was short listed for the Booker 2018. Snakes and Ladders, I think, is so much better.

Book Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

It’s taken a few weeks to find the words to describe how powerful this book is. And even so I probably won’t do it full justice.

Girl, Woman, Other written by Bernadine Evaristo, together with The Testaments by Margaret Attwood, won the Booker Prize in 2019.

This book, set mostly in Britain contains twelve different stories in various timelines about a group of diverse women, most of whom are black. The reader is taken on a journey with each of the women and we learn about them and their lives with an almost brutal honesty.  This book is a social commentary of what it means to be black and a woman in modern Britain and predictably it’s not always pretty.

There’s Grace in 1905 an orphan, Winsome in 1953, a migrant from Barbados, Amma is 1980 who sets up a feminist theatre. Then there’s Carole, the high flyer in 2008 who turns her back on her Nigerian heritage, and Morgan, once known as Megan in 2017 navigating her way to independence.

These are almost stand-alone short stories except that there is a connection which comes together with an incredible last chapter via Penelope who bears the brunt of family secrets in a calamitous way.

The characters grow on the reader quickly because the writing is succinct, poetic yet direct. The absence of regular punctuation such as full stops and capital letters to start sentences doesn’t call attention to itself as the reader gets very used to the easy to read style within a few short pages.

Amma misses her daughter now she’s away at university

not the spiteful snake that slithers out of her tongue to hurt her mother, because in Yazz’s world young people are the only ones with feelings

but she misses the Yazz who stomps about the place

who rushes in as if a hurricane’s just blown into her room –

 

A word of warning: The connection between the many characters can be confusing and a map would have helped on occasion to prompt the memory. But if you read the book quickly, it shouldn’t worry you too much. And it is very easy to read. But my advice is to take it slowly and saviour it as each word earns its place.

This one is an important book to read, enlightening us all about the history of the black women’s experience in Britain.

I simply loved it.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

 

Pic courtesy of Goodreads

This is a powerful read with a lot in it. George Washington Black is born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados owned by the ruthless and cruel Englishman, Erasmus Wilde. Never knowing his parents, young Wash, as he is known, lives a life where brutality and hardship are daily struggles for survival.

By the age of eleven, another white gentleman known as Titch comes into his life. Titch is Erasmus’s younger brother and is a scientist who builds a prototype of a hot air balloon on a hill in the plantation. It’s the 1880s and his invention is sneered at by his older brother. Titch sees Wash and plucks him from the fields to be his assistant because he is the right weight for his contraption. Titch is also an abolitionist and objects to slavery and takes on Wash’s education and discovers his talent for drawing. Wash quickly assimilates into a new way of life and grows attached to Titch but he is never free of fear as Titch takes him on an adventure with dire consequences.

This is a very well researched historical fiction giving an intimate examination of slavery. But it’s more than that; it’s full of adventure, suspense, love, and history. It’s set in an era where science and invention are challenging the norms of society. The writing is wonderful from the point of view of Wash in the first person. His observations are clear.

“A man who has belonged to another learns very quickly to observe a master’s eye; what I saw in this man’s terrified me. He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him very much. His name was Erasmus Wilde.”

We’re taken on a journey with Wash –  loving him, fearing for him and caring, deeply. And even though that journey at times feels impossible and almost improbable to believe, it doesn’t matter because we care so much about what happens to Wash and dare to hope for a better life for him. Along the way, we become caught up with the science of the time, from hot air balloon inventions to the world’s first aquarium, the wilderness of Canada and arctic exploration. The dynamics of Titch’s dysfunctional family are played out with Wash stuck in the middle trying to belong and find love.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, it’s a wonderful story. From violence to beauty and hope, it’s fascinating and absorbing, so much so, I couldn’t put this page-turner down.

Book Review: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

 

Romy Hall is a young woman serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanford Women’s Correctional Facility in California. Outside, in the free world is her mother and her seven-year-old son. Inside, is a world where she has no rights, where hustling to survive is the norm and boredom is rife. Her upbringing by her single mother was less than ideal and she does what she can to escape the cycle of poverty which was pre-ordained from her childhood. Working in various jobs, dabbling in drugs, she ends up as a dancer in a strip club where a man stalks her and that’s where the trouble begins.

The Mars Room, short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 is the name of the strip club where Romy worked. We are in her head, observing and feeling the desperation and despair of prison life. Detail slowly unfolds until we find out the reason for her incarceration.

The legal system is frustrating and her overworked legal counsel is barely adept because she can’t afford anything better. Her side of why she did what she did wasn’t permissible and the injustice of it all permeates.

Her lawyer explains, “Even in these unbelievable cases, where the lawyer is totally out to lunch, they (the judiciary) still side with him. One guy fell asleep during cross-examination of his client. Another was a felon himself, handing a murder case as community service, but had no experience as a trial lawyer. Think those guys were ‘ineffective’? Not according to the Supreme Court. You got a very tough deal. There’s no question, and I feel for you.”

The author takes us on a bleak ride into the gritty and raw lifestyle of people who are down and out, abused and drug addicted, and into an institutionalised system where prisoners are barely treated with any human dignity. The characters are well drawn and Kushner does a remarkable job to show not just their flaws but their vulnerability and humanity particularly fellow women prisoners. Kushner gives us brief interludes into other points of view, mostly men; Doc the corrupt detective, Hauser, the teacher and even the stalker.

I’m in two minds about this book. On one hand it’s a fascinating look at life through the eyes of a prisoner. On the other hand, it was disjointed as the chapters flipped in and out of Romy’s point of view and I found this to be a bit laboured. I think I would have preferred to see the world only through Romy’s eyes which was quite rich enough. It’s very well written and the  ending was incredible stayed in my head long afterwards. It’s definitely a book worth checking out.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Every so often a book comes along to shake up storytelling. This seems to be one such book.

The premise is relatively simple. Set in a cemetery at night, a grieving Abraham Lincoln visits his eleven-year-old dead son who is caught in a nasty and unpleasant realm called a Bardo.

Ghosts, who for some reason think they’re not dead, roam freely around the cemetery. This was a bit of a stretch, but then, this is the fantasy part. The reader is bombarded with a cacophony of ghostly characters (said to be more than 150) each voicing their thoughts and anguish as lost spirits caught in between worlds. The reason is not altogether apparent to them (or the reader), but it seems they’ve done something bad somewhere in their lives. Most of the narration is dominated by three men and female spirits are few. Perhaps, I like to think, they are generally good souls who have gone straight to the afterlife, while the rest are not.

I’d heard about this Booker Prize winning novel and thought the premise had merit. Not being terribly familiar with American history of the Civil War, I expected to learn a lot. From the first few pages, I became hopelessly confused with the one or two-line dialogue per character. I read a review which explained the book and then I re-read the beginning again. Maybe it’s me, but should I be confused about what’s happening and have to resort to someone else to explain?

Other sections of the book were excerpts from essays, books or newspapers of the time. This was interesting and clever of Saunders as it gave an insight of how history is interpreted depending on what side you’re on.

There’s not much of a plot or development of characters and none that you really warm to. Although I did feel something for Willie Lincoln, the son. But I guess this was not the intention, after all, this is not a book like any other. The reader must work at it and read carefully even when some parts make no sense or may seem superfluous. I confess to skimming sections yet being thoroughly absorbed in other parts.

The writing is good and reads almost like a play, poetry and encyclopaedia all rolled into one. There’s humour, amazement, frustration and boredom. The reader is provoked and prodded but I’ll admit, I almost gave up.

Yes, it’s not like any other book I’ve read before. I know this book is acclaimed and lauded by many others who loved it. Did I enjoy it? I can’t say I did. It was adequate enough for me to have finished it. Maybe I should re-read it again. It probably warrants it. But there are too many other books more worthy of my time. A word of advice – try and read it in one sitting. I think it might work better than a few pages a day.

Book Review: The North Water by Ian McGuire

North Water is another book shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Set in 1857, the story is about a whaling expedition which goes horribly wrong. There is conflict between two main characters, Drax, a disgusting and violent man and Sumner, a doctor.

The opening line “Behold the man” sparked my interest. The next paragraph led me down a path of the grotesque. The ensuing pages unfolded such violence, savagery and cruelty that I was tempted not to read on.

Drax and Sumner have dubious and contrasted pasts but we only learn about Sumner. I wondered what must have happened, for a man to become like Drax, who in the end, like the rest of the characters, I cared nothing for.

This book without formal warning is not for the faint hearted. I wondered if it was necessary to describe the killing of baby seals in such horrific detail. For me, this sort of violence was unnecessarily graphic and added little to the plot. Toning down the violence would have enhanced the book. The reader gets that it’s a tough life and harsh conditions without it being rammed constantly down our throats. The only thing that compelled me forward was the fact that there was another purpose for the expedition which becomes clear half-way through. Getting past this point, the story becomes one of survival which gripped me until the end. I wanted good to overcome evil and was rewarded for my patience, but what a journey I had to take to get there. Well written with evocative language, the fact that I shivered with the men in the freezing conditions, is a testament to where the author wanted me to be.

Read it if you dare.