Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh

sea of poppies

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A sailing ship full of emigrants, prisoners, labourers and enchanting personalities departs India in 1838.

♥ “Set in 1838, at a time of colonial upheaveal and shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China, Sea Of Poppies tells the story of the ship Ibis and her collection of characters making the journey from India to Mauritius.

“There is a fallen raja, an American freed man, a French Orphan, a Chinese Opium addict, and a cross-dressing reincarnated saint just to name a few. As they sail away from their pasts they become ship mates and family, each relaying their story with colour and candour. This results in a narrative brimming with accents and dialects, and stories which are personal but also factural, racially historical and political.

“There is plenty of action onboard as well, as the Dickensian cast of characters establish their own new beginnings.”

How was it that no one had ever told her that it was not love itself, but its treacherous gatekeepers which made the greatest demands on your courage: the panic of acknowledging it; the terror of declaring it; the fear of being rebuffed? Why had no one told her that love’s twin was not hate but cowardice?

♥ “The text here is sensory and thick with meaning. Each character’s story is moving and significant. However the vast array of languages and slang is difficult to keep on top of. I have no doubt this is an authentic work that tells many stories that need to be told, but I think it needs to be read more attentively than I was able to to be fully appreciated.” – Rachel

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Published 2008
John Murray
528 pages

A Fraction Of The Whole – Steve Toltz

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From his prison cell, Jasper Dean tells the unlikely story of how he, his scheming father Martin and his crazy Uncle Terry upset an entire continent

♥ “For most of his life, Jasper Dean couldn’t decide whether to pity, hate, love, or murder his paranoid father, Martin, a man who overanalysed everything and liked to force his self-absorbed opinions on his only son. But now that Martin is dead, Jasper can reflect on the man who raised him in intellectual captivity, and what he realises is that, for all its lunacy, theirs was a grand adventure.

“As he recollects the events that led to his father’s demise, Jasper recounts a boyhood of outrageous schemes and shocking discoveries—about his infamous outlaw uncle, Terry and his mysteriously absent European mother.

“The story takes them from the Australian bush to the cafés of Paris, from the Thai jungle to strip clubs, asylums, labyrinths, and criminal lairs, always with a set of good intentions which usually end up catastrophically. Each tale is so full it could be a novel in itself, and the result is a wild rollercoaster ride.

He pointed the gun at me. Then he looked up at my hand and tilted his head slightly.
– Journey, he said. I had forgotten I was still holding the book.
– Céline, I said back in a whisper.
– I love that book.
– I’m only halfway through.
– Have you got to the point where —
– Hey, kill me, but don’t tell me the end!

♥ “Raucously funny, A Fraction Of The Whole had me spell-bound. It’s not what I’d expect from a Man Booker shortlister but I am pleased it made the cut as it added some light-heartedness to the proceedings. There are loopy characters and purposefully overworked plot lines and everything spirals together until it is all so ridiculous you just have to read on to find out what’s going to happen!” – Rachel

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Published 2008
Hamish Hamilton
711 pages

Back Booker 2005

2005 By the time the year is over we will have completed three Bookerthons! Can you tell this is our new favourite  pastime?!

We chose 2005 this time as we’ve recently read two of the shortlisters, plus  we’ve heard great things about the other four.

Our thoughts?

As with the last Back Booker, we were swayed by the pre-existing attachment to one of the contenders ie Never Let Me Go for its dystopian/science fiction/very human story all tied up into one. Again, we were disappointed it wasn’t the clear favourite back in 2005.

A Long, Long Way is quite emotionally captivating and could easily have won. Arthur & George is a fascinating look into the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sought to solve a real mystery, and On Beauty is a contemporary nod to Howards End. We had mixed thoughts on The Accidental, having been entertained but not quite keeping up with Ali Smith’s genius. The Sea, while clever and with charming characters, we found it a bit contrived and neither of us would have guessed it would win had we Bookerthoned that year!

Best book 1-6: Rachel:

Never Let Me Go
A Long Long Way
On Beauty
Arthur & George
The Accidental
The Sea

Best book 1-6: Suzy:

Never Let Me Go
The Accidental
Arthur & George
On Beauty
A Long Long Way
The Sea

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

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Chosen by Nadine

A brooding tale of passion and revenge set in the Yorkshire moors

♥ “Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel details the arrival at Wuthering Heights of a man named Heathcliffe and the close bond he forms with his benefactor’s daughter, Catherine Earnshaw. Class status divides them, and a saga of frustrated yearning and destruction follows, culminating in Catherine refusing to marry Heathcliff after her brother’s meddling. Heathcliffe departs the property only to return years later both educated and wealthy.

“A second generation of family dramas and love interests abound, all the time with both Heathcliffe and the married Catherine at the periphery interferring with events.

“The novel did not become well-known or liked until after the author’s death, with critics complaining of its excess of passion, coarseness and ambiguity, even: ‘in a great measure unintelligible, and-where intelligible-repulsive‘.

“More critical analysis of the book since has caused many to conclude it is a work of genius, spanning both Gothic and Romantic genres and posing the important question: “Who and what is Heathcliffe?” asking the reader to consider the effect Heathcliff has on those around him. Recurring sexual symbolism, a complex narrative structure and a defiance of rigid categories portray characters as either saints and sinners, yet their cruelty and selfishness does not prevent them from being likeable – very un-Victorian.

“Breaking away from these traditional genre markers is perhaps what has given the book long-lasting appeal. An exciting plot; the moody moorland setting and the originality of the characters were all precursors for a modern style of penmanship. The ending (no spoiler) was once called the ‘most powerful and daring climax in English Literature’.

“The expectation of a Victorian narrative to find something more indepth and contemporary in nature meant all the freerangers connected instantly with Wuthering Heights. The mysteriousness of Heathcliffe captured us and the unpredictability of the plot also kept us on our toes. It’s clear this is an important part of literary history and everyone should read it!”

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Published 1847
Thomas Cautley Newby
214 pages

The Sound of Butterflies – Rachael King

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Chosen by Rachel

Lepidopterist Thomas Edgar arrives home from a collecting expedition in the Amazon unable to speak

♥ “In 1904, the young lepidopterist Thomas Edgar arrives home from a collecting expedition in the Amazon. His wife Sophie is unprepared for his emaciated state and, his inability to speak. Sophie’s genteel life in Edwardian England contrasts starkly with the decadence of Brazil’s rubber boom.

“As Sophie wonders what has happened, the book takes us back to the Amazon and details Thomas’ search for a mysterious butterfly. Up the river, via the opulent city of Manaus, inhabitants feed their horses champagne and aspire to all things European. Here,  Thomas’ extraordinary, and increasingly obsessed, journey carries him through the exotic and the erotic to some terrible truths.

“Back home, unable to break through Thomas’s silence, Sophie is forced to take measures to discover Thomas’ experiences. But as she searches through Thomas’s diaries and boxes of butterflies, she learns as much about herself as about her husband.

♥ “A sensory book in which every person, action and location is well captured. The Amazon is a fascinating setting, the perfect place for an exciting string of events, and as such I learnt a lot while being completely entertained.” – Rachel

♥ “Ever since a slightly terrifying book read at school as an 8 year old I have been slightly edgy around moths and even butterflies.  The story ended with thousands of evil moths beating their wings against a door trying to reach the person inside.  My kid overactive imagination (not improved by adulthood actually) went a step further – *obviously* the the moths beat down the door and ate the person.  THIS BOOK BY RACHAEL KING DID NOT HELP. But all is forgiven as this is a beautiful book. I was there alongside the characters, feeling exhilarated and sweaty in the jungle and also then repressed and sad in the stuffiness of England. A great read.” – Suzy

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Published 2008
Picador
386 pages

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

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Chosen by Suzy

Considered the original non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood details the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter and his family

♥ “In this book, the author explores the true story of the murders of the Clutter family in rural Kansas. The Clutters were found in their home bound and shot in 1959. Immediately upon the news of the murders, people in the small town of Holcomb began to fear their neighbours, convinced someone local could be the only possible suspect. A special unit of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was formed specifically to investigate the case.

“Capote follows the search for the killers, as they travel the length of country, interacting with strangers who closely escape their next crime. The capture, confession, and trial of the two men responsible are detailed in the book providing a full cycle of events surrounding the murders.

In Cold Blood was a first of its kind, a true crime narrative.”

♥ “A chilling story that kind of crept up on me. Chilling because it was a true story. But also I think knowing the events that took place at the beginning of the book left me unprepared for almost feeling empathy for the killers at the end of it!” – Nadine

♥ “Aside from biographies, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. But this is the kind of non-fiction I do like. A nail-biting, well-built plot made all the more astounding by knowing it actually happened and what’s more was the first of its kind. I enjoyed hearing the story behind the story, too, in regards to Capote’s subsequent interaction with the murders while in prison.” – Rachel

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Published 1994
Vintage
343 pages

The God Of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

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Chosen by Nadine

This novel discusses who should be loved, and how. And how much. It describes how small things affect people’s behaviour and lives

♥ “The God of Small Things details the lives of fraternal twins Rahel and her brother Estha. The narrative alternates between two time periods from the present to the of the time of the twins’ greatest trauma, which occurred upon the childhood visit of their cousin Sophie Mol.

“Separated for twenty-three years with no contact, the twins are now adults. Rahel had travelled to America, where she suffered a failed marriage. Estha went mute willingly.

“In the present they meet at their family home in Ayemenem, where the trauma that separated them occurred. During the course of the novel, Rahel unravels her memories of what happened to them and their family, while the perspective periodically moves into other family members’ lives to provide an understanding of the family dissolution.

“The story revolves around the way different family members’ choices and attempts to escape their culture or class impacts them. Abuse and betrayals are passed down from generation to generation. There is much marital discord, abuse, and rejection by the family members from whom they most the need love.

“Yes there is a lot of sadness, but Roy’s portrayal of innocence is touching. The characters are relatable and likeable from the first page. The many changes in narrative perspective proved a bit of a distraction to us all but ultimately the characters’ believability transcended the confusion.”

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Published 1997
IndiaInk
368 pages

Accordion Crimes – Annie Proulx

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Chosen by Rachel

The history of America’s founders is told by the travels of an accordion, and the hands it passes through.

♥ “An accordion is handmade by a Sicilian in 1890 and changes owners several times throughout the novel, ending up in Florida in 1966. Each owner belongs to a nation of people new to the Americas. Each chapter tells their story, not only their personal story but how their people came to America, their successes, their adversities and importantly how they helped shape and grow the country into what it is today.

“It acknowledges the contributions of the various nationalities from the music and song of the French and Sicilians to the railroad construction techniques of the Germans. At the same time it demonstrates how the memories of these nationalities’ contributions is being erased, instead labelling the Sicilians as criminals and mobsters and causing German families to change their surnames due to fear of persecution.

“Amongst the seriousness is the beauty of the accordion. The reader is educated on the intricate detailing required to build the instrument, but also how they are played and how each generation, and each nationality of people, played and enjoyed it and how it formed part of their history.

“At the end of each extended chapter, (small spoiler alert but you’ll still enjoy the book having read this) all the characters you have been introduced to and became familiar with, die in the short space of a page or two. Some are gorily detailed, others are merely recorded, some are hard to read, others are amusing, but by the end, we have learnt of everyone’s ultimate demise.

“Proulx to her credit has been quite inventive with her deaths. It gets to the point where you wonder how could she possibly find ways to kill off the next bunch of characters. But of course there is a serious side too, with their deaths showcasing the violence and injustice often experienced by immigrants.

“Despite knowing everyone is going to die in the final paragraphs, the reader is presented with characters who are full and highly detailed in the pages prior, with their stories concluded before the dying begins, so the sudden reporting of their fates doesn’t leave you in the lurch with an unfinished story. It’s an interesting feature though, that drew different reactions amongst us from bemusement to horror.”

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Published 1996
Scribner
544 pages

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D H Lawrence

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Chosen by Suzy

A working-class man has an affair with an upper-class woman 

♥ “D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1920 amidst much controversy over its content, mainly a married woman’s affair with her gardener in order to give her war paralysed husband an heir. This type of love and natural passion as salvation in a prim society was not looked upon favourably in the 1920s. Neither was Lawrence’s experimental with choice four-letter words, resulting in the privately published book being censored in both the UK and US.

“The third version of the novel was not published in the United States for thirty-one years; it reached the bookshelves even then only after a series of court battles and much public debate. The ensuing publicity over its release meant the book became a best seller some thirty-odd years after it was written.”

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work. There is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

“We agreed the controversy over this book was its appeal, but obviously reading this book for the first time nearly 90 years after it was written, when such stories are now commonplace, meant the shock factor as we imagined it was not present. However, we appreciate how this content was risque for its time, and that its mere existence paved the way for writers that followed Lawrence.

“But it was a great romance, filled with angst and passion, and something we did all enjoy.”

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Published 1928
Tipografia Giuntina
352 pages

The Child In Time – Ian McEwan

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Chosen by Nadine

In a dystopian future a child is snatched during a routine supermarket visit.

♥ “Stephen Lewis takes his three year old daughter to the supermarket one morning. He turns is back for just moments and she is gone. When she cannot be found he must head home to give his wife the news.

“The couple search in agonising fashion. Readers do not need to be parents of three year old daughters to feel the acute pain of these parents poured out on the pages. Their marriage, their lives are strained.

“At the same time Stephen is involved with politics in a slightly dystopian future, responsible for writing a book about child care. There is some kind of subtle time travelling event, which links into the title of the book: examining the timelessness of passing hours spent between a parent and a young child, about the innocence, about the sentimentality of remembering a child at a certain time of their life. About a kidnapped girl who now belongs to that moment of time.

He had been back a thousand times, seen his own hand, a shelf, the good accumulate, heard Kate chattering on, and tries to move his eyes, lift them against the weight of time, to find the shrouded figure at the periphery of vision, the one who was always on the side and slightly behind, who, filled with a strange desire, was calculating odds, or simply waiting.

“It is a very difficult book to read for the searing possibilities of ‘what if’. But it is the haunting nature of it which makes it outstanding. All of us as mothers of young children were affected by this. Especially the line “‘she was a lovely daughter’. There were tears shed! The dystopian future is constructed well, London is a city of unemotional, faceless crowds, and various wars are underway, but it is not too far-fetched so as to distract you from the real story, which is Stephen’s anguish over the abduction. This was an emotional read but one which we can all recognise as a work of genius.”

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Published 1987
250 pages