Treat yourself to an ‘unputdownable’ read

2009-09-30 00:00

AFTER a couple of years when the choice of Boeke Prize finalists was a bit substandard, this year’s pile of six bestsellers has been a treat.

They arrived on my desk with ­instructions to find the one which stands out as “the most superb, ­unputdownable book of the year”, which I also have to believe is a work of “literary art”.

Not sure quite what that means, but I certainly found plenty to enjoy, and all these six books, which the country’s biggest bookselling chain wants to promote as top-notch reads, have something to offer.

Obviously, not everyone is going to like the same things: some may find A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book too heavy, Anita Shreeve’s Testimony too light, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game too Gothic (I did) or Reif Larsen’s T. S. Spivet too cutesy by half (and owing a little too much to the far better The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time), but there’s still plenty to enjoy in this list.

I dithered between Brooks and ­Byatt for my winner, but in the end Brooks tipped the scale on the grounds of genuine unputdown­ability. Treat yourself to a couple off the list, and enjoy.

Exclusive Books will announce the winner, chosen by the judges, and the Fanatics’ favourite, on October 6.

People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks

Harper Perennial

AN enthralling piece of literary detection. An Australian book restorer is called to Sarajevo in the aftermath of the civil war to restore a unique 15th- century Jewish prayer book, saved from the looting of wartime by a ­Muslim librarian.

It is also known that it had had a similar narrow escape from the Nazi looters half a century before, again saved by a Muslim. But little of its ­earlier history is known.

As Hanna works on the precious pages, she finds forensic clues to the history of the book — a piece of hair, a stain on a page, salt crystals — which allow her to piece together a sketchy history of the artefact. Brooks, however, fleshes this out by telling ­stories of 15th-century Spain, 17th-century Venice and 19th-century ­Vienna as the book makes its eventual way to Bosnia.

She manages to make the characters at each stop along the way ­convincing as we get glimpses of the failing “rainbow nation” of Moorish Spain, the horrors of the Inquisition, religious wars and hatreds, anti-Semitism and slavery. Perhaps a little less convincing is Hanna’s contemporary life, but it is a linking device that draws the threads together. A real page turner and a great story, and based on the discovery of a real book. I loved it. (1)

The Children’s Book

A. S. Byatt

Chatto & Windus

A HUGE sprawling saga of a group of Fabian Society families, running from the end of the 19th century to the aftermath of World War 1, an event which was to bring a way of life to an abrupt end. It is also a study of creativity, its wonders and the damage it can do to those around the creative ­personality.

There are three families central to the book: the Wellwoods, where Olive is a writer of mildly disturbing ­children’s stories; the Fludds, where the father is an unpleasant and disturbed potter of genius; and the Cains. Prosper Cain is a widower and the ­curator of the new Victoria and Albert Museum.

The lives of adults and children ­coalesce and move on in a variety of ways as Byatt creates unforgettable characters. It is a profound book, crackling with ideas.

My only criticism is that now and then, Byatt allows herself to become a little didactic, a little too much in the mode of those improving Fabian ­lectures her characters deliver, interrupting her narrative flow and turning her characters into mere mouthpieces for ideas.

The ideas are interesting, but they tend to diminish the characters. Nonetheless, it is a story to relish and a powerful evocation of an era. (2)

The Help

Kathryn Stockett

Penguin Fig Tree

THIS tale of maids and madams in the Deep South — Mississippi in fact — in the sixties is immensely readable. The story concerns Skeeter, a young, plain, white woman who returns from college to find the black maid who brought her up has vanished, and her mother will say nothing on the ­subject.

The future that has been mapped out for her, which includes finding a suitable husband and doing very little thereafter, is not what she wants. She gets a job writing a household hints column for the local paper, and turns to Aibileen, a friend’s maid, for advice. She, after all, has never washed a dish nor ironed a dress in her life.

And from there Skeeter comes up with the idea of writing a book documenting the experiences of black domestic workers. Aibileen and another maid, Minny, get in on the project. All three women narrate the novel.

The book ranges between the funny and the horrific, and the fact that Skeeter is the heroine and obviously the one least at risk because she can get away if she has to, is partly compensated for by the ironic tone Stockett uses.

It is a very accomplished first novel, and in an afterword, Stockett admits that as a white woman, writing in a black voice is a risky thing to do, something that had nagged at me as I was reading.

Although dealing in a field that is rife with stereotyping, by and large Stockett succeeds: maybe my niggling doubts come from living in a country where the same wounds are more raw than in America. Read it yourself and decide. (3)

The Angel’s Game

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

I KNOW this book, just like the ­author’s The Shadow of the Wind, is likely to be a big hit. But it will be a hit with those who buy into the whole Gothic thing — gloomy, creepy mansions, mysterious encounters, locked rooms, creaking doors, frozen lakes, the undead and a rapidly rising body count of the really dead.

Zafon does it very well, but I find it ultimately a bit tiresome. Fine for a short, sharp burst, but a lengthy novel makes the whole thing rather overwrought.

The story concerns a young man, David Martin, who seems doomed from the start by a miserable ­childhood and no prospects. His only ­desire is to write. But he finds patrons, and things seem to be looking up until he comes into contact with a ­mysterious publisher who wants him to write a world-changing book, ­creating a new belief system. It was here that I began to feel David’s ­critical faculties were more than a ­little lacking, but never mind. Things get more and more Gothic and David’s life becomes more and more unpleasant, what with the love of his life going missing, the cops after him and an ­inevitable confrontation with the publisher. (4)

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Reif Larsen

Harvill Secker

SOMETHING about this book, which oozes precocious charm, began to make me feel decidedly curmudgeonly. Everything about it (the strange format, the marginalia and footnotes and the narrative voice which is that of a 12-year-old child genius) is too loudly begging the reader to just love it all. And, while I enjoyed large parts of it, equally large parts of it irritated me.

T. S. Spivet is a disturbed child. His father is a cowboy-type rancher, his mother a scientist. His younger brother has recently died in a gun accident, which left T. S. feeling guilty.

He takes after his mother, obsessively observing and mapping his world and, improbably, submitting work to leading academic journals where it is accepted.

Out of the blue, he is invited to the Smithsonian in Washington to receive a major award, and sets off alone from his Montana home. He quite literally jumps onto a train, and away he goes. Some of his adventures en route are fine; others not.

For entertainment, he has stolen a notebook of his mother’s which turns out to be an account of his great-grandmother who was another ­pioneering scientist. When he gets to Washington, things turn even more surreal.

There is undoubted charm in parts, and the book has been a big hit in the United States. But I found the ­gimmicky layout and whimsical tone something of a pain. A bit too much of a good thing, I’m afraid. (5)

Testimony

Anita Shreeve

Abacus

ANITA Shreve is a safe bet for producing a readable, if not particularly ­profound, novel. Here her plot ­concerns an upmarket American school which is devastated by a sex scandal in which three senior jocks are caught on camera having drunken sex with a 14-year-old girl.

The story is told through various voices — the boys concerned, the girl, parents, the headmaster and other interested parties. This device, skilfully used, allows Shreve slowly ­to ­unpeel the layers of the story and ­consider the question of the guilt of those involved.

Sex with an underage girl is a crime: lives and future prospects are ruined. Among the adults, marriages will be destroyed.

Shreve is trying to make us ask ­ourselves just who are the victims here, and who is ultimately responsible? But it is a little contrived, and ­although we are kept interested by the slow revelation of what has happened, I was left unconvinced by the whole concept.

A slightly unpleasant morality tale — and I’m not sure that I buy into the moral. (6)

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