The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

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Balram Halwai is a servant, a philosopher, an entrepreneur, a murderer. Over seven nights he explains how he became a success in life, having nothing but his own wits to help him along.

“Born in the dark heart of India, the protagonist Balram gets a break when he is hired as a driver for his village’s wealthiest man. From behind the wheel of their Honda City, Balram’s new world is a revelation. He observes his employers bribe foreign ministers, barter for girls, drink liquor, and benefit from the poor in the society’s unfair class system.

“Balram learns many things, good and bad, but importantly, he finds his own way up from the bottom of the system.

“Balram’s narrative provides a look at India as few others could: the cockroaches and call centers; the prostitutes and worshippers; the ancient and Internet cultures; and, trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is (almost) impossible, the white tiger. With undeniable charisma Balram teaches us that religion doesn’t create virtue, and money doesn’t solve every problem,  but decency can be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations.

You ask ‘Are you a man or a demon?’ Neither, I say. I have woken up, and the rest of you are sleeping, and that is the only difference between us.

♥ “At the centre of this book is a touching story about India’s class system and the injustices that come with it. On the surface is Balram Halwai, an amoral, endearing but totally charming protagonist who manages to con his way through life, and into your life as the reader, too. The dark humour ties the reality together and produces a provocative novel. I found this book hard to put down.” – Rachel

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Published 2008
HarperCollins
318 pages

The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher

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Covering 1974 to 1996, The Northern Clemency is a portrait of an era, a novel concerned with the lives of ordinary people and history on the move

♥ “The Northern Clemency features two Sheffield families, the Glovers and the Sellers, and tells the story of their everyday lives over a 20-year span.

“Cooking of meals, gardening, family arguments, gossip and relationships fill the pages. There is no surprising plot twist as the events that occur are the things that happen to people every day: emigration, retirement, illness, marriage, all normal events in life. Several characters die, and no being eaten by a shark is not all that usual but still, the book the is very realistic, with the author detailing every thought and every move of the nine main characters over 736 pages.

“Set in Manchester the book apparently contains events and locations accurate to the time and place to add to the believability.

If you don’t say anything it can’t become important, but if you say it everyone’s ever after got to walk round it like a pile of rocks in the living room.

♥ “This book encapsulates an era and follows the lives two suburban families living in the same street. The true-to-life characters are highly detailed, from the main personalities through to the cast of minor characters. Births, deaths and marriages are in high supply and the detail with which it is all narrated is what made this large novel addictive.” – Rachel

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Published 2008
Harper Collins
736 pages

The Clothes On Their Backs – Linda Grant

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Vivien Kovacs is on a search to reveal the truth to the secrets kept from her by her timid Hungarian refugee parents

♥ “Two Jewish brothers are at the heart of this novel. One escapes Hungary prior to the war, marries and neither parent ever reveals their past to their only child, especially not the fact they are Jewish.

“The other brother, Sandor, stays and suffers life in a slave labour camp. His eventual move to the UK sees him became a criminal and a slumlord who has a desire to wipe the slate clean by revealing all to his estranged niece.

“Vivien’s love of clothes and her hobby of trawling second hand stores for stylish, old-fashioned outfits reveals the theme of the novel: being defined by your appearance, or do the clothes maketh the man, or using clothes as a cover for who you really are.

“Sandor challenges Vivien’s ideas around morality, what he has seen and experienced seems to justify his own behaviours. Though Vivien finds his actions difficult to accept she balances her disgust with the joy that she feels in discovering her family history.

But who can really remember pain? It’s impossible, you don’t remember it, you only fear it returning. These thoughts are like stitches – you see together a memory with them and the flesh heals over into a scar. The scar is the memory.

♥ “The relationship between the protagonist and her Uncle holds the story together, but ultimately the book is not about clothes or appearances but a Hungarian and British history. Other plot lines don’t seem as developed, nor do many of the characters. It’s an interesting premise but to me it did seem a bit of an un-Booker Booker shortlister.” – Rachel

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Published 2008
Scribner
293 pages

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

2005We decided to sneak in another Bookerthon before our regular Bookerthon in 2008. Can you tell this is our new favourite pastime?!

This time we took on 2005 as we’d recently read two of the shortlisters, plus heard great things about the other four finalists.

Our thoughts?

There seemed to be quite a hark to classics or classical styling in these novels. Tried and tested themes or links to popular works of literature were apparent. These features eased us into these new works and allowed us to accept the brave twists and new paths the authors took. The start of each new book felt like slipping into something tried and true, something reassuringly comfy. But by the time each was completed, we realised we had been challenged thematically and opened up to new stylistic points of view.

Arthur & George reveals a section of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle who created Sherlock Holmes, the world’s most famous detective. It includes the time he took on a case of mystery himself, fighting for a pardon for a man named George Edalji who was charged and imprisoned for mutilating livestock.

On Beauty is Zadie Smith’s nod to the E M Forster classic Howard’s End. Set on both sides of the Atlantic, it is an honest analysis of family life, the institution of marriage, intersections of the personal and political, and a study of the deceptions that loved ones can act out upon one another.

The Accidental takes the time-honoured plot driver of a stranger entering the lives of a family or community and through their actions or just presence forces the inhabitants to closer inspect their own lives or relationships. In this, a barefoot woman shows up at the door of the Norfolk cottage the Smart family is renting for summer. She talks her way in. And she stays.

The Sea is said to recall such masters as Proust, Beckett and Henry James in its prose as it tells of a widower retreating to a familiar place in which to remember his wife. It is a book about memories but more about memories that could be lost if effort is not exerted to ensure they stay present.

Never Let Me Go is set at Halisham, an exclusive English boarding school in the country. This familiar setting and sense of ease is soon smashed when readers realise the students are part of an organ harvesting operation that caters to the rich and ill-treats the vulnerable and different in our society.

A Long, Long Way deals with the realities of war. In 1914, 18-year-old Willie Dunne leaves Dublin, his family and girlfriend to enlist and face the Germans on the front lines. Dealing with personal struggles and the overwhelming consequences of war this book details a horror of violence no solider could ever have imagined.

In the end we came to love this selection of reading material, though we found The Sea, while clever and with charming characters, a bit contrived and neither of us would have guessed it would win had we Bookerthoned that year.

As with the last Back Booker, we were swayed by our pre-existing attachment to one of the contenders. In this instance it was Never Let Me Go for its dystopian/science fiction nature but also its foundations in realism that made us feel like this very thing could happen. We were surprised this did not get the nod!

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

sound of butterfliesREAD FOR BOOKCLUB

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

In-Cold-Blood (1)READ FOR BOOKCLUB

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