Monday, October 18, 2010

An Across-the-Pond Book Bonanza

I don't know about you, but the Man Booker Prize is one of my favorite literary prizes. The reason: I'm a mostly American-centric reader, and so the Booker nominees (see below for a short description of what the prize is, if you're not familiar) are usually authors I'd never heard of, thus opening an entirely new world of literary possibilities, already vetted by some pretty prestigious peeps (well, presumably — I've actually never heard of any of the Man Booker judges). 

My next three reads — Room, by Emma Donoghue (which I started over the weekend); C, by Tom McCarthy; and Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray (who is actually Irish) — were all on the Man Booker longlist this year, and I've never read (or even heard of) any of those three writers until the longlist came out over the summer. The winner was actually Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which sounds okay, but I'm not getting a speeding ticket on my way to B&N to pick it up. (Additionally, after much prodding from the peanut gallery, I finally read David Mitchell a few months ago — The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was also a Booker longlister. Wasn't my favorite book ever, but not terrible.)

In the past, I've found some stuff from across-the-pond novelists I'd never have heard of had they not wound up on the Booker list. Some I really liked — Sarah Hall (The Electric Michaelangelo) — some were a tad dull — Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss). In both of those cases, I vividly remember being in a bookstore and picking them up on a whim, hoping to "get in on the ground floor" of a novelists not many of my fellow Americans may have heard of. Isn't one of the best book dork feelings recommending books to others that they end up loving?

Anyway, here's a (not at all inclusive) list of other British/Irish authors I've enjoyed: Ian McEwan, Ken Follett, Zoe Heller, Zadie Smith, Colum McCann and Nick Hornby. And here's a list of the best British writers since 1945, from The Times (London). There are several on here I've always meant to read, but haven't: Salman Rushdie, VS Naipul, AS Byatt, John Fowles, etc., etc.

Who are some of your favorite across-the-pond novelists? Anyone obscure or up-and-coming you'd recommend? 

The Man Booker Prize aims to reward the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. The Man Booker judges are selected from the country's finest critics, writers and academics to maintain the consistent excellence of the prize.  The winner of the Man Booker Prize receives £50,000 and both the winner and the shortlisted authors are guaranteed a worldwide readership plus a dramatic increase in book sales.


  1. I can't wait to hear your opinion of Room -- I don't think I've heard a male perspective of the novel yet.
    Andrea Levy was on the shortlist for this year's Booker Prize; I thought The Long Song was only ok, but I absolutely adore Small Island.
    Nick Hornby is a favorite of mine as well.

  2. I thought Anne Enright's The Gathering (2007 Man Booker winner) was excellent.

  3. I'm a huge Booker fan as well. Can't wait to hear your take on Room, I've been curious about that one.

  4. I adored Room and am still disappointed that it didn't win(it's going on my Best of the Year list,however). Interested to see what you make of the book,Greg.

    As for across the pond favorites,some of my personal picks include Penny Vincenzi,Marian Keyes,Nick Hornby and J.K. Rowling. Ken Follett won me over with Pillars of the Earth and World Without End and Alexander McCall Smith's Number One Ladies' Detective Agency books are awesome to behold.

  5. I'm from Britain, but I've usually not heard of at least half of the Booker longlist. I'm looking forward to reading Jacobsen, my usual criticism of the prize is it takes itself seriously, and only seriously. I've no doubt that The Finkler Question is serious, but it's meant to be damn funny as well.

    As for British writers, check out: Andrew Crumey. Mick Jackson. Toby Litt. McCall Smith's greatest series, The Sunday Philosophy Club. Mark Watson.

  6. Sarah Waters?

    If your looking for inspiration on British or Irish writers then you might want to check out the penguin decade books. I've only read the 70s ones so far but they have introduced me to ppl like Susan Hill and William Trevor.

    I'm not suggesting you buy the penguin decade books btw but it might give you ideas.

  7. I think I read more British lit than American lit--always have. I'm not sure why that is, but the books that appeal to me often end up being by British writers.

    I'll second the Sarah Waters recommendation. She's been shortlisted for the Booker in the past, and her books are a perfect mix of thrills, brilliantly drawn characters, and excellent writing.

    Another favorite of mine is Kate Atkinson. She's most well-known for her Jackson Brodie crime novels, which are quite good, but she started out writing literary fiction, and those books are wonderful! Wickedly funny and extremely cleverly constructed.

  8. I just broke down and bought Ken Follett's latest - Fall of Giants. At 985 pages, it's a little daunting, but so far it has the usual Follett quality of being a page-turner.

    Love Naipul and Fowles, also Hornby. Don't know why Skippy Dies didn't make the short list - and I'm with you, not going to race to the bookstore for The Finkler Question.

  9. I also love the Man Booker (being from the Commonwealth myself) and the shortlists are one of my go-to's for a list of must reads for the year. If you're interested in other prizes from other ponds within the Commonwealth, the Australian Miles Franklin Award is great. It's my favourite book prize of them all :-)

  10. I was the biggest John Fowles fan in my twenties, and still have a soft spot for him.

  11. About a year and a half ago, I was in a bookstore and picked up a copy of Nicola Barker's Darkmans which was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2007. Like you, it was on a whim and the book looked fascinating. Fast-forward to now, that book is still sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. It's a brick, weighing it at more than 800 pages, but I should probably get around to reading it.

  12. @Suzanne - Love Room so far. It could've been so "precious," but it's not. That's why I like it. Almost finished. Review next week. I'll have to try Andrea Levy - thanks for the recommendation.

    @Patrick - Good call - I've heard it's excellent. Thanks for the rec.

    @IngridLola - It's good. It's very good. Review coming next week.

    @Ben - Thanks for the list! Sounds like the Booker prize mirrors our National Book Award lately in that not many of us have heard of the nominated authors either.

    @Jessica - Heard from a lot of folks Sarah Waters is good, but never read her. Thanks for the link.

    @Teresa - Ah, Kate Atkinson - another writer who's never made my reading list, but has always been close. I've heard Case Histories is excellent.

  13. @lady T - (whoops, sorry you're out of order) Room is awesome! Follett won me over with Pillars, too. Is it weird that it's hard to get motivated to read the first of his trilogy until the others are out, though?

    @2manybooks - It is daunting! But Follett reads fast, so when the others of the series are out, I'll dive in. Where would you recommend starting with Naipul?

    @mummazappa - That's an award I hadn't heard of, but I'm off to its Website to check out the list. As you know, my favorite Australian is Bryce Courtenay - does he show up at all on the Australian literary prizes? Hard to find his books other than The Power of One over here.

    @Jeanne - Never read him - where would you suggest starting with Fowles?

    @Pete - Ha, every book lover has like 15 stories like that. I'm scared of an 800-page novel whose Amazon description starts "There isn't much plot..."

  14. I would start with The French Lieutenant's Woman, his most popular success (for good reasons). My favorite, though, is The Magus.

  15. ah, 'fraid not for Bryce Courtney - it seems that his older work is still considered to be some of the gems of Australian literature, but in recent years his more recent books' reputations have been tainted by rumours of ghost writers etc. I do still love his work anyway. I hope you find something that intrigues you from the MF shortlists, Tim Winton is always a winner in my opinion (Except for the Riders which went nowhere very slowly). I find the book depository is pretty good at getting Aussie books out to the rest of the world, but sometimes it's still difficult. There are other Australian based websites that will ship to the US although they can be expensive. I guess it depends on how much you want a book as to how much you might pay for it!