Tag Archives: music

Booker Prize 2015: Shortlists and Winners

That’s it!

You’ll notice there are three books missing from my reviews over the past three days – I have read them, but just couldn’t bring myself to expend any energy on writing about them: Sleeping on Jupiter is dull, The chimes is an average example of a dystopian future, and Satin island forgets that a novel has to have emotional heft as well as intellectual.

I’m still worried the Americans have invaded:

So. The shortlist. I’m surprised, slightly, that my own shortlist is actually pretty similar to the official one.

My shortlist:
Did you ever have a family, Bill Clegg
A brief history of seven killings, Marlon James
The fishermen, Chigozie Obioma
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
The year of the runaways, Sunjeev Sahota
A little life, Hanya Yanagihara

Among those six, there are four that I would be happy to see win: James, Obioma, Sahota or Yanagihara. All are spectacularly excellent novels that deserve a wide readership, and really speak to a lot of what is going on in the world today.

But I am going to pick a winner. And I know it’s the favourite, and I know it’s an easy out, but I’m really hoping A little life gets up. I know it’s divisive, but for me, it really was the best thing on this longlist. I don’t think I’ve ever read a 700-page brick so fast, and even though it’s often melodramatic, overwrought and ridiculous, it really is, underneath all that, a book about the incredible strength love can give us if we just let it in.

And that’s it! If I remember, I’ll write a reaction post to the winner – tomorrow night, AEDST.

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Five Star Billionaire (2013) – Tash AW

Tan Twan Eng’s winning of last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize hopefully went some way to recognising that there is a huge output of English language literature coming out of South East Asia, including Malaysia. Tash Aw is another Malaysian author who has made a splash in recent years, and for his third novel, he moves away from historial fiction about Malaysia to the current state of the Chinese Malaysian diaspora returning to China to find wealth.

Five Star Billionaire is the story of four young Malaysians who have come to China to hit the jackpot. But life isn’t easy in the biggest city in the world, when 23 million other people want exactly the same thing. More than ever, it is the small connections, the fragile relationships we have with other people, that become important in a city where everyone is out to get everyone else.

Shanghai’s international pull is well documented here. All four (five, even) main characters have come from Malaysia, Aw’s homeland. They have come because, for them, Shanghai is the Mecca of Asian development. It is the place where people come to get rich beyond their wildest dreams. It is a reminder to all of us in the West that China really has become the ideal for so many people in all of developing Asia.

Though each character is Malaysian, and has come to China to find success, it is a credit to Aw that they are all here for different reasons, and have vastly different family backgrounds. Justin is the heir to a huge family real estate conglomerate that has been successful since colonial times. Gary has been plucked from village obscurity to become a successful M-Pop (is that a thing?). Phoebe represents the thousands (millions?) of factory girls who flow across the borders into China to find wealth. And Yinghui is the end of Phoebe’s journey—a successful business woman who is constantly told that she must now find a man.

Just as we spoke last week about Mo Yan’s dim view on the rapid development of rural China, we now get Tash Aw’s rather depressing view of contemporary, already-developed urban Shanghai. It is a city that will take you in, chew you up and spit you out without a thought for your wellbeing. It is a place where everyone is out to make a buck, no matter the consequences for the people around them. Gary and Justin are the first to find this out the hard way—Justin’s family business goes bankrupt, forcing him to redefine who he is. Gary’s temper gets the better of him one night in a bar, and all of a sudden, he loses the millions of adoring but fickle teenage adorers.

There is a sense of impermanence that pervades all four narrative strands. Every time a character is successful, we are obliged to feel happy for them, because they are, for the most part, nice people. But so often it feels like a hollow victory—we know from past experiences that the fall is always harder than the ascent, and can happen when you are least expecting it.

It seems ironic, then, that the characters themselves seem so blithely unaware of the world in which they live. The best example of this is Yinghui’s story, which is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all the narrative strands. Despite her business acumen, she remains sweetly naïve about the lengths people will go to in order to make money.

I haven’t read Tash Aw’s debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, so I can’t comment on whether he is getting better or worse with time. If nothing else, Five Star Billionaire marks Tash Aw as a writer who has his finger on the pulse. This is as modern a novel about developing Asia you are likely to find. From the sleazy chatrooms to the exploited illegal immigrants, from the destruction of old heritage buildings to the glittering new skyscrapers, everything you need to know about rising Asia is here.

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Half Blood Blues (2011) – Esi EDUGYAN

With the announcement of the 2011 Man Booker Prize looming, I’m still trying to work my way through the novels on the longlist that interest me. My sure-fire bet, The Stranger’s Child, didn’t even make the shortlist, which just goes to prove that the judges and I never see eye to eye. That’s fine – I’m not complaining – because even if I can never pick the winner, the longlisting of books I’ve never heard of before means I find new and exciting authors.

Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones, and Hiero Falk – three young black jazz musicians living in Berlin – have fled to Paris to escape the Third Reich, with the help of Delilah, a young American woman. As tends to be the case, however, her presence upsets the fine balance between the three young men, and when Hiero is disappeared from the streets one night, Sid realises he finally may have gone too far.

It is easy, I think, to forget that the Jews were not the only people hunted down and exterminated by the Nazi Party during their reign. Gypsies, disabled people, jazz musicians, gay people, black people – these groups were also rounded up and put into horrible concentration camps. Of course, the setting of the novel is not really the point – if you are looking for a deep and meaningful insight into what living black in Nazi Germany was like, this is not the place. Indeed, Sid and Chip are both American citizens, and Sid, able to pass as white, freely admits he and Chip have less trouble than Hiero, who is a half-black German citizen, a Mischling.

Betrayal and guilt are the overriding themes. Edugyan begins her story in 1939, and we are then yanked into 1992, where someone has invited Sid and Chip to talk about their memories of Hiero for a film. Sid has never mentioned what he did in Paris, and when accusations begin to fly at the screening of the documentary from Chip, he is at first angry, and feels betrayed. It is not until he confronts Chip about the ordeal, and agrees to journey to Poland to meet up with Hiero again for the first time in sixty years, that he begins to think that he shouldn’t be the one who feels upset about any kind of betrayal.

Betrayal is also at the heart of Sid’s relationship with Delilah. Her easy-breezy attitude to life, to music, and to her friendship with Louis Armstrong, has an instant affect on Sid, whose own insecurities about his musical abilities are a stumbling block to his initiating any kind of relationship. Eventually, though, he manages to overcome these, and the two sleep together. It soon becomes clear, though, that Hiero is also deeply enamoured with Delilah, and Sid’s already strong dislike of the kid grows and mutates into a kind of self-destructive jealously. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down very well with Delilah.

Sid is a deeply flawed, and therefore deeply believable, character. Never as good a musician as his two friends, he finds himself surrounded by people who mean well, but never give him the chance to fit into the jazz world. He knows his own limitations, too, and this influences his own growing resentment of  Hiero in particular, who is a kid wonder on the trumpet. Add to this the jealously he feels over Delilah’s actions towards Hiero, and Sid becomes almost unlikeable. And while he does become unlikeable, I also found him sympathetic, too. To a certain point, though. There are some things, particularly in Vichy France, that are unforgivable.

The closing scenes with Hiero and Sid ring true. Hiero, despite having lived through many, many horrors, still has a glimmer of the enthusiastic over-grown puppy feeling he had at the age of twenty. As Sid breaks the news to him, tells him that everything that happened is his fault, he simply cannot believe it. These two old men, separated for sixty years, nearing the end of their lives, have a very brief conversation about the past, and while Sid attempts to atone for his past sins, whether Hiero will let him is another matter.

Half Blood Blues uses its temporal and physical setting to great effect. By essentially locking her characters in an abandoned club for half the novel, Edugyan proves her worthiness to be on this year’s shortlist. This is a story about the relationships between men and women, about jazz, and about the decisions we make when under pressure, and the repercussions of these unwise decisions.

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Amsterdam (1998) – Ian McEWAN

I read this weeks ago! This is, I think, the first time I’ve reviewed a book so long after the fact. I blame the fact that uni has stared again (only to end this week – yay!), and so I haven’t had time to scratch myself. So if this review seems a little off, I apologise in advance.

When Molly Lane dies, her friends come to pay their respects. In particular, two old friends meet again – Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is a famous composer, having been commissioned to write the symphony for the next millennium. Vernon is the editor of a newspaper struggling to survive. As these two lives begin to once again intertwine, a pact they make will have disastrous consequences.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Ian McEwan – clearly, I’ve never reviewed him here. But I do like him a lot. There seems to the this stigma surrounding his work because he manages to straddle that line between populism and literature so very well – I would totally class his stuff as literature, but it has a somewhat broader appeal than most. There seems to be some ‘conventional wisdom’ that Amsterdam shouldn’t have won the Booker, but he got it because he was short-changed with Enduring Love. I don’t know about that, though. This is pretty good.

What I like most about McEwan’s work is the fact that it is just so very English. Well, a very specific type of English, to be fair – the middle-aged, upper-middle-class white man. But he just does it so well. These two men – Clive and Vernon – are so caught up in their own problems, they cannot see anything else. And when they realise that a woman they both dated has died, they also realise just how short their lives are. And so, the wheels begin to turn. Their legacy becomes of vital importance – who will remember these two men after they have died? What should they do to ensure their names live on?

The lengths they go to in order to ensure this become so great, you cannot quite believe that they are actually happening. Clive is willing to let a woman be attacked and raped just to ensure his muse isn’t interrupted, while Vernon is happy to destroy another man’s career – and probably family – to ensure he is remembered. And yet, this backfires so spectacularly on both of them. Both of them become so self-destructive, the ending seems almost like high farce.

Indeed, this is a very funny novel. McEwan keeps it light – and short – but I do think it works to the novel’s advantage. There is something very darkly funny about watching these two self-important, insignificant men run around trying desperately to make themselves relevant. And (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you), the ending is absolutely perfect. There is no other way this book could have ended, and McEwan times it perfectly. There could have been a tendency to drag had he let their machinations play our terribly much longer, but the final scenes are so perfectly written and timed, I had to laugh. It’s pretty epic.

Amsterdam is an intelligent novel – and I think people tend to forget that sometimes. Partially because it’s surrounded by Enduring Love and Atonement in McEwan’s oeuvre, and the fact that it’s McEwan at all. There’s quite a lot at work here, and if you like your characters white, middle-aged, middle-class, with just a hint of insanity, then this just might be for you.

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The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008) – Steven GALLOWAY

Sorry for my prolonged absence here. Even though it’s uni holidays, I’ve gone off reading a bit lately. But have no fear (for those who were worried), it is coming back to me. And so this book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, and I needed something with a hook. And luckily enough, this one has a hook that has (fingers crossed) broken my dry spell.

Sarajevo in the early 1990s is not a happy place. Besieged on all sides, the residents of the city are forced to scamper around the streets, in constant fear that you will be shot by a sniper. In all this, though, one musician offers hope. His music will inspire three people to think about the way they think about what is going on around them. Three people for whom living in this city has become not just become a way of life, but a fight for survival every day.

It’s interesting that a Canadian writer should write this, and not a Bosnian. There is such evocation of the city of Sarajevo, that you really feel engrossed in a city under siege. Galloway has a slight tendency to show off his local knowledge, with constant listing of streets and intersections, but for the most part, his portrayal of Sarajevo itself is perfectly done. What makes this even more impressive, also, is his evocation of a city at war with itself. There’s a lot of description of the actions of war itself – from how a sniper chooses her target, to how one can hear a shell coming towards you – and the effect of this is a little disturbing, to be honest. The Cellist of Sarajevo is not a pleasant novel to read. It’s actually quite confronting to think of these people as real, and there are one or two passages that really hit home, and terrify you as a reader. Trying to empathise with these three characters is difficult – you want to, because their situation is so dire, but if you do, you face the risk of feeling thoroughly sad for the next little while. That, and I think most of us have no idea what it is to live in a war zone.

Who are these characters, then, that fill us with sympathy and dread at the same time? There is a sniper, who goes by the name Arrow. Her journey is most unique in this novel – she is called in to protect the cellist, the musician who is bringing hope to the city. Kenan is a man simply trying to get some water for his family to survive, and Dragan is going to work in a bakery. The latter two narrative strands read almost as short stories broken up into small pieces, and while there are certain similarities, there are enough differences between the two journeys, and indeed characters, to realise they both offer something different. Kenan’s young family is still living in Sarajevo, and they are tired. Tired of the war, tired of the fighting, tired of living. Dragan’s family has escaped into Italy, but he has stayed, for reasons not even he can understand. These two people are nothing special, but their job as everyman in the novel forces home the novel’s mission – to bring war to the people, to show us the way people live and change in war. It’s very, very well done.

I don’t read a lot of war novels, I don’t think. But this one is a little bit fantastic.  By not having the cellist as the main character or focus, but simply by having him as a set point in time and space, there is more room for Galloway to breathe. He doesn’t have to provide the cellist with a reason for doing this (very smart), and he can create three characters who react to him. Very sensible, that. There’s such a sense of resignation, of despair that runs through the whole thing, and yet, the end provides hope. And it is the cellist who provides it – something that not even the characters believe can happen. Perhaps, then, this is not a war novel. Perhaps this is a novel about music.

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