2019 Bookerthon

Wow, what a year! The books on the Booker shortlist in 2019 are gigantic, in every expression of the word. There are books of many pages, books written by literary giants, books that deal with the huge topics of today. There’s the effects on every day people of racism, sexism, Trumpism, exclusion and climate concern. The underclass, the undesirables, those who are devalued by the majority all have a voice in this shortlist. Yet it is not as miserable as it sounds. There is much hope, fulfilment, upliftment and laughter amongst the stark realities.

“Is it a coincidence that one of these books is named An Orchestra of Minorities? For really, this is an apt description of this shortlist, a collection of minority groups given a voice in societies that seem to devalue difference and freedoms. These books represent views, whether realist or satirical, on our contemporary fake-news, what-is-truth culture, where the concept of reality itself is becoming eroded.

An Orchestra of Minorities is about a Nigerian chicken farmer attempting to win over his girlfriend’s wealthy parents only to succumb to prejudices and trickery of the upper classes; 10 Minutes & 38 Seconds In This Strange World recalls the abusive life a dying Turkish prostitute and the effect on her five closest friends who are considered outcasts.

The Testaments details the downfall of a totalitarian state where women are kept hostage as the baby bearers of the regime’s commanders; Quichotte follows the delusions of an Indian man and his imaginary son as they cross the country in search of a drug-addicted celebrity who works in the unreliable media.

“The housewife in Ducks, Newburyport who worries about Trump, gun control, her children, climate change and much more, actually reveals how normal she, and everyone like her, is; Girl Woman Other tells the story of 12 black, gender-diverse women and their normal lives in modern day Britain.

“Big topics, big storylines big characters – they really are full frontal punches in the face of reality. These authors are capturing today in very different ways, for us, the reader, to digest and consider. None attempts morality but they do open the realms of possibility so we may form our own opinions and react accordingly.

“It was a tough call for us this year. Often we quickly form an idea of where each books sits in our favourites rank but this year we appreciated, enjoyed and valued them all, for different reasons. What each has done to represent society at this moment and how each will be remembered as a fragment of this age is valid.

“So, while in exclusion at Westhaven, in the exquisite Kahugrangi National Park, how did we rank the shortlisters?

The Testaments – while we revere Margaret Atwood and the creation of Gilead, we wondered: does this book fare as a stand alone concept, or does it rely on The Handmaid’s Tale for greatness? Hmmm. The rest we honestly couldn’t fault but had to rank them in some order and pick a top dog. And we both agreed, Ducks Newburyport performed its job as a take on the modern world as well as the others, but its unique format made it refreshing and completely absorbing and therefore a step above the rest.”

Suzy (favourites in order 1-6)
Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann
An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigoze Obioma
Quichotte – Salman Rushdie
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World – Elif Shafak
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

Rachel (favourites in order 1-6)
Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann
Quichotte – Salman Rushdie
An Orchestra of Minorities
– Chigoze Obioma
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World – Elif Shafak
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann

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Written in stream of consciousness style, an Ohio housewife worries about the state of the world

⚑ “the fact that Lucy Ellmann has written an absolutely remarkable novel with what will be perceived by some as an entirely unremarkable protagonist, the fact that I loved every one of those 998 pages, the fact that maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome, the fact that I am far too invested in the love life of a fictional mountain lion, the fact that America is terrifying, the fact that it’s like someone’s probed my brain and dumped its contents and sent it to a publisher, the fact that I have never read such a close-to-the-bone depiction of the mother/teen girl dynamic, the fact that it was an complete joy to read this ode to the overthinker” – Suzy

⚑”The description of this book does not to it justice. Yes an Ohio housewife worries about the world, in mostly one sentence, made up of a list of statements, separated by commas, that all begin with the phrase ‘the fact that’, BUT! what Ellmann covers off is remarkable. Yes she reflects on the state of the world, but she uses incredible detail, carefully nuanced commentary and fantastic pacing to make you, the reader, really consider and form your own opinions about the various topics.

“The unnamed housewife’s over imaginative consciousness jumps around these topics somewhat chaotically, and she forms lists, many, very long lists, (the fact that I love lists) but there is still a plot. And doesn’t this describe people? And life? Repressed thoughts, daily to-do lists but still a life that ticks over. But in the end they all converge into the person you are. And here they not only converge seamlessly into the person the housewife is but into the all-encompassing conclusion.

“Ellmann has turned the idea of traditional story telling on its head and invented a new form of the novel. She has examined how temporary life is and captured it, and human consciousness and the world in a way that is brilliant, impressive, thought-provoking and completely genius.

“I went into this book dreading it, for its size and style. But once started, it was difficult to put down. It is very readable and quite funny. Full disclosure I did skip a few hundred pages so I could read the ending before blogging about it, but now I’m going back and re-reading pages I missed, so I can link up the various plots, subplots, thoughts, foreshadowing and all Ellmann’s other cleverly disguised technicalities.” – Rachel

the fact that hogs make their own beds, though I’m not sure they do it every morning, the fact that they’re cleaner and smarter than anybody realises and don’t deserve to be made into bacon, but everyone likes bacon so much, so it’s a conundrum

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Published 2019
Galley Beggar Press
1022 pages

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo

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A story of modern Britain and black womanhood told through the eyes of 12 different women

⚑ “This is a beautifully paced novel which at first I thought was a collection of separate stories. However the links and interwoven threads soon became apparent and we dive deeper and deeper into the characters’ lives. Learning about a character from multiple people’s perspectives gave a richness and layering that often isn’t achieved when a story is told form a single point of view.

“We also go back and forth and in time and start to get a better understanding of the trajectory of certain characters and an empathy for their motivation and decisions. Their was a lovely rhythm to this book and I was sad when it came to and end.” – Suzy

⚑ “Girl, Woman, Other does what few other novels do by giving black, gender diverse, women a chance to speak. It sounds moralistic but it is not. These 12 stories are not about colour or sexuality, they are about people, flawed and complex people, who have struggles and successes. It’s about their loves, their triumphs, their identity and family connections.

“Each character has a chapter dedicated to them, but the stories overlap slightly to provide links, and more of a novel rather than 12 short stories. I have not read Evaristo before, but can see she is a master of characterisation. The women and their families are so well formed. The book is written in a poetic style, with ideas or simply words being dedicated their own line with limited punctuation. As such it flows nicely and is beautiful to read.” – Rachel

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Published 2019
Hamish Hamilton
464 pages

Quichotte – Salman Rushdie

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A modern re-write of Don Quixote that broaches traditional elements as well as the current state of the world. 

⚑ “Confession time: I have not read Don Quixote. While I know the premise I don’t know its intricates nor how cleverly Rushdie has played upon them in Quichotte. But I imagine quite well. Confession number 2: I have never finished a Rushdie book. So I was thrilled to discover how readable and enjoyable Quichotte was, despite the sometimes absurdist occurrences and delusional ramblings.

“The main character, an old man named Quichotte and his imaginary son, Sancho, traverse a United States that is in moral decline and encounter racists, opioid-addicted celebrities, people who turn into mastodons, crickets who speak Italian and guns that talk. They watch copious amounts of telly and trash Trump. During their travels they address all the big ticket items: racism, media, politics, addiction, greed … serious stuff but actually the book is quite funny. Plus also weird, poignant and annoying. But the world is these things. And so are people. Story telling and literary references are rife, tying together all the abstract ideas. Despite, or perhaps because of, all this craziness, I really enjoyed this book and I think the characters will stay with me for some time.” – Rachel

… to live inside fictions created by untruths or the withholding of actual truths. Maybe human life was truly fictional in this sense, that those who lived it didn’t understand it wasn’t real.

⚑ “Before this year’s Bookerthon got underway I boldly stated there was NO WAY I was going to read Quichotte due to having absolutely no success with reading other Salman Rushdie books. However, Rach gently persuaded me and I decided to give it a go.

“I’m so pleased I did as it was a damn good read! I enjoyed the book-within-a-book structure and the parallels between the two stories. I have read other reviews of Quichotte that said it was a bit too silly, but I was all for the silliness. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give Midnight’s Children another crack.” – Suzy

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Published 2019
Jonathan Cape
393 pages

An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigoze Obioma

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A Nigerian chicken farmer sells everything he owns in order to win over his girlfriend’s wealthy family.

⚑ “An Orchestra of Minorities is about a Nigerian chicken farmer who falls in love with a girl from a wealthy family. The family do not accept Chinonso due to his lack of education so he seeks to address this in order to be able to marry his love. However, things do not eventuate as planned and the book is a whirlwind of events and agonies for him.

“Chinonso is well written and as such I cared about him deeply – I was desperate for things to work out. The book has no human narrators, instead the chi of Chinonso relays the story as he justifies his human’s actions to a panel of spirits on a divine jury of some sort. This provides a narration language which is rich and magical.

“Obioma has written only two books. Both have been shortlisted for the Booker. That gives you some idea of what a phenomenal writer he is and how worthwhile this book is.” – Rachel

They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.

⚑  “I was a bit apprehensive about this novel as I’d read it was based on Homer’s Odyssey which I know nothing about (and have to say I have no intention of finding out). I thoroughly enjoyed The Fishermen by this author though, so I tried to put aside my doubts and jumped right in.

“Narrated by a spirit guide, there were plenty of twists and turns and I don’t think I have wanted a fictitious character to succeed as much as I wanted Chinonso to. If you know anything about Homer’s Odyssey then maybe you can guess whether or not he did? I am pleased that it was a total mystery to me anyway and I was happy to be along for the ride.” – Suzy

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Published 2019
Little, Brown
448 pages

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

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The sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale in which the republic of Gilead is taken down.

⚑ “I haven’t anticipated a book as much as this one since Go Set a Watchman was released (side story: when I bought Go Set a Watchman the shop assistant said at the counter ‘oh have you read the first one?’. No, I am waiting outside your shop until it opens and rushing to your display of this new book on the day of its release and I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird).

“Was I disappointed with Go Set a Watchman? Yeah I was actually. So bearing that in mind, and despite the genius of Margaret Atwood, I went in to The Testaments with low expectations. Just because I cared so damn much and couldn’t bear the disappointment if it wasn’t amazing. It was an absolutely thrilling read, but The Testaments wasn’t what I expected and I really feel like I can’t say much more than that because anything else feels like a betrayal of the sisterhood.” – Suzy

⚑ “All other Handmaid’s fans will understand how very long and dearly I have wanted this book to be written. I was desperate to know what happened to Offred, Aunt Lydia and the Waterfords. I have pondered their fates many a time. 

“Now, finally, I know. My initial thoughts? I did not want to know after all. I realise I was better off wondering, to keep the intrigue. I have never needed all the answers, or a sewn up conclusion so why did I think I needed it this time? Don’t get me wrong, I devoured the book in no time flat, there’s no denying it is a page turner. Atwood, the genius, has again produced prophecy-style fiction by using events and ideologies that really exist #legend. But at the end I felt a sense of disappointment rather than exhilaration like I did with The Handmaid’s Tale.

“Reasons: First of all I have the mini series imagery stuck firmly in my mind. Secondly, I read The Testaments not as a stand alone book, nor even as a sequel, but as an ending to The Handmaid’s Tale. I couldn’t help it. Thirdly, let’s face it, no sequel is ever as good as the original concept. You’d think I would have learned my lesson after Go Set A Watchman, but apparently not.” – Rachel

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Published 2019
Chatto & Windus
422 pages

10 Minutes & 38 Seconds In This Strange World – Elif Shafak

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A dying prostitute’s brain lives on for 10 minutes & 38 seconds during which it recalls her life’s troubles.

⚑ “Tequila Leila is a Turkish woman with a traditional but disturbing upbringing and a adulthood full of expectations and sadness. It is hard to bear sometimes but the humanness that Shafak creates is important as she details how so many people in the world are taken advantage of and dehumanised. We know from the opening pages that Leila is dying and, unconventionally, it is her death that lifts the story into one of hope and camaraderie. Five of her friends, each with their own imperfections and trouble being accepted into normalcy, come together to ensure her life was not without meaning. This book was a huge page turner for me, despite its grimness. I enjoyed the rich detail of Turkish traditions and the complete feeling that Leila existed outside of these pages. I felt I learned a lot by reading it.” – Rachel

⚑  “This novel was strangely uplifting despite there being one tragedy after another in rapid succession. The events that occurred lost a bit of their horror when the pieces were picked up by a strong and supportive group of friends. I liked the insight this novel gave into various historical events and we also learned how brutally life can pan out for people in Turkey who don’t fit with society’s expectations. Despite the strong storyline and enjoyable characters I would never recommend this novel. The brutal sexual violence was awful to read about and if the author’s intention was to disturb her readers then the goal was certainly achieved with me.” – Suzy

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Published 2019
Viking
312 pages