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  1. My Name Is Lucy Barton is a fragmentary novel, comprising short vignettes as Lucy Barton looks back on her life. They are presented in a jumbled up order and time signposting is minimal. From this, the reader is supposed to get to know Lucy Barton. The concept of the extended character study is not new. In my experience, the appeal of such novels depends largely on whether the reader gets "into" the character. It is not necessary to like the character or identify with them, but it requires some degree of emotional investment. Lucy Barton didn't do it for me. In fact, such was the fragmente
  2. The current lockdown was an ideal opportunity for me to read this very long novel. I had read the first two of the trilogy (Wolf Hall etc) and I knew how good the writing was. Even when you know the inevitable ending you are so engaged with Thomas Cromwell's multifaceted life. His occasional reminiscences of his young life in Putney and the bad treatment by his thug of a father are sometimes more vivid than the complexities of religion and politics in that era but that is inevitable. It is not a soap opera that Hilary Mantel has written.
  3. Agnes Day has been brought by her mother Bea to join in a social experiment - living with a self-sustaining community in the last true wilderness. Bea's partner Glen had designed the program, and as the infant Agnes's health deteriorated in the city, joining up to the program looked like a ray of hope. The New Wilderness is an exercise in world building. The wilderness, its mountains and forests, its deserts and rivers, the coyotes and bears and deer and rabbits... The world feels real, visceral. The passage of time, the passing of the seasons is done so well. However, it's not a happy wor
  4. Antara is a middle class Indian woman. Her husband, Dilip, is an American Indian (no, not one of those) who was sent by his company to Pune despite hardly speaking a word of Hindi and breaking his rotis with two hands. What had been a very happy, westernised relationship is now transformed by the arrival of Antara's senile mother and the imminent arrival of a baby. Antara is less than thrilled by her change in circumstances as she explains to readers in sassy, sarcastic tones. Antara loathes her mother, but she is honour bound to support her. The mother - Tara to her daughter's Un-tara - s
  5. Real Life is a fabulously well crafted capture of a moment in the life of Wallace, a black, gay postgrad working in a biochemistry department of a Midwestern university (presumably Madison-Wisconsin). Wallace hails from Alabama - not desperately poor, but very much an outsider whose sexuality did not sit well with his race in the deep south. He hopes that he might fit in Madison, working in a program that has never taken a black student before. The opening chapter, a party on the lakeside pier, threatens to become The Great Gatsby as Wallace sits in admiration of the sophisticated white st
  6. Tambudzai is an underachiever. Sent to a private school in Rhodesia, studying at the University of Zimbabwe, she land up in Harare unemployed, no plan, drifting between hostels and rooming houses. She seems not to have any great sense of urgency in finding either a job or a more stable form of housing. She quite her job as a copy writer in a fit of pique, and lands up as a school teacher for which she has no qualification. And then she has a breakdown and her life falls into chaos. Is this a metaphor for Zimbabwe - once the breadbasket of Southern Africa with an educated populatio
  7. If you are fascinated by the bed-hopping habits of students then this is the book you have been waiting for! Connell and Marianne are from Carricklea, a fictional town in Sligo (not the fashionable end of Ireland). Marianne lives in the big house with her mother. At school, she is ostracised for being weird – perhaps because she is rich, perhaps because her father is dead. Perhaps because she is clever. Connell is from the regular side of town. His father is also gone; his mother Lorraine works for Marianne’s mother as a cleaner. Connell is also clever, but he seems to have kept this hi
  8. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a technically accomplished novel but I found it somewhat clinical and cold. Set in the Californian goldrush, the novel follows the fortunes of a Chinese migrant family. Initially, the two young girls. Lucy and Sam, are trying to find a suitable place to bury their father Ba. Ba seems to have been a cruel father led by drink and aggression. Other sections follow, one offering Ba's explanation of what he was trying to achieve; there's Ma's story of first meeting Ba, and there is Lucy in a goldrush town some years after burying Ba. Each section is packag
  9. Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an unnamed young woman living in an unnamed part of Belfast (probably the Ardoyne), some time in the late 1970s. By way of context, the intensity of the killings in the early 1970s – especially the civilian deaths – had subsided; there had been population movement and people had retreated into small, “safe” pockets exclusively populated by people of the same political tradition (which was also generally correlated to people’s national identity and religion). Both unionists and nationalists still thought they could win the war through a
  10. Home Fire is that rare beast: a novel with really important points to make while also being a cracking read. Through the eyes of five characters, we get a dissection of what it means to be British-Asian in the current world. Initially, we meet Isma, resuming a career in academia in the US after bringing up her orphaned younger siblings in London. Picking up her former life does not start well as she is detained by security at Heathrow Airport and misses her flight. Then we meet Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary Karamat Lone. His father, as a Muslim politician, is keen to distance h
  11. This book was selected by the Oprah book club, which was enough to make me refuse to read it since many of her books feel very chick-lit to me. But a friend heard it was about time travel (it isn't) and was dying to read it. Also the author was coming to a speaker series that I often attend and so I broke down and read it. And then I heard him read from it and talk about it last night. I was wrong to have rejected it and lucky to have heard him speak. I don't know what those of you outside of the U.S. know about U.S. history, so at the risk of telling you something you know, th
  12. I came to Snap as a bit of a fan of crime novels. They are escapist, often wildly improbable, but often quite good fun and when done well, offer some insight into quirky characters. Snap, despite the gushing comments on the cover, is a decent read but it is nothing terribly remarkable. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Marie Wilks murder, Eileen Bright breaks down on the hard shoulder of a west-country motorway, leaves her young children in the car, and heads off to find an emergency telephone. An hour later, the kids set off in search of her and find the phone cord dangling.
  13. review of 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster Auster's latest novel starts with chapter 1.0 being the one constant in the story of the four Ferguson's that each part of the novel starting with the arrival of Ferguson's grandfather to New York and the boat over. We have the same genetic make up of the one character but in four different scenario for each. So in one, Archie is a star sports athlete, another he had been poorly as a child while a third. Each unique in their own way and each creating a different character though with some similiarities. In the first Ferguson for each of
  14. Warlight is a story of espionage and intrigue, set in London in two distinct time spaces: the 1940s and 1959. In the 1940s narrative, Nathaniel, his sister Rachel and their parents have survived the war. Surviving the peace will not be so easy. First Nathaniel’s father leaves to work in Asia, and then his mother disappears. He and Rachel are brought up in the family home by a revolving cast of strange men who seem to drift around the edges of the criminal underworld. There are shady dealings with greyhounds and furtive nocturnal sailings up and down the Thames in a mussel barge. Nathaniel
  15. The literary fiction caravan comes to Neasden. Previously known only for the ashen-faced Ron Knee, Sid and Doris Bonkers and Private Eye (see p. 94); we find ourselves in a council estate following multiple points of view within a diverse community. At first it looks as though it is going to be all about youth with Yusuf, Ardan and Selvon - but we also find other voices: Nelson, a Windrush generation man and Caroline, a refugee from the Troubles in the north of Ireland. The difficulty I had was in separating the different characters. The youths, in particular, were interchang
  16. Occasionally there is an American novel that features neither their president nor a prison. This is not one of those novels. Romy Hall is a stripper sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for murdering one of her clients. Most of the novel offers her perspective on life in the Californian prison system. This is done with competence, although there is nothing earth-shatteringly new. There are cinder blocks, chains and bunk beds. The women do mechanical jobs, they hang around the yard, they eat slop and get on each others' nerves. They communicate with neighbours by shouting do
  17. I think it's fair to say that when Richard Powers gets an idea, he runs with it. The Overstory is a novel about trees. Every other sentence mentions a tree. The main characters each have a signature tree. And most of them converge to protect trees. The structure of the book itself is designed to resemble a tree - each character has a backstory that is a root; the stories converge in the longest section - the trunk; the characters diverge again into the crown; and then in the smallest section they produce the seeds of a future world. And my goodness the book is long and involved. Mo
  18. The Long Take is a book that is, for much of its length, written in verse. But is it poetry? And is it a novel? Set in the 1940s and 1950s, we follow Walker a Canadian who has served with the British Army in WW2, as he demobilises in New York and tries to create a role for himself in civil society. He is an acute observer of the world around him. He sees squalor. He witnesses fights, crime, sleaze. He is drawn into journalism but has a fascination with cinema - so it is a logical step for him to relocate to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles he finds is a macroscopic version of his own c
  19. Everything Under is a transposition of an ancient Greek legend into modern-day England. I did not know which legend when I read the novel which allowed a slow dawning to take place. Other reviewers have named the legend and I cannot help feeling that knowing where things are heading would make the reading both simpler and less satisfying, Therefore, I will skirt around much of the plot. Having said that knowing the direction of travel would make the reading simpler, it must be said that without this knowledge, the reading is far from straightforward. There are 8 main sections, each
  20. The Water Cure is set on an island in a post-apocalyptic near future. Three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky live in a health spa hotel with their mother and King, their stepfather. Their guests are all damaged women, seeking cures from the sun and radiation and other horrors of the mainland. The radiation has not reached the island, offering the family a refuge from the horrors of the real world. And one day King dies. And three men arrive from the mainland. And mother disappears. This feels like a transposition of a 19th Century Irish manners novel into another era. The s
  21. When we first meet George Washington Black, he is a field slave at the Faith Plantation, Barbados. The Plantation is taken over by Erasmus Wilde, a cruel and vindictive master who treats his animals with more respect than his slaves. Thus begins a well-told but fairly routine slavery+cruelty story. Then Washington’s fortunes change when Erasmus’s brother Christopher comes to stay. He is an idealist and inventor; he needs an assistant to help him build a giant balloon in which he hoped to cross the Atlantic. He is invited to live with Christopher, to call him Titch, to eat fine food and speak
  22. Elmet is an interesting novel that would probably have slipped by unnoticed had it not been long listed for the Booker Prize. Set in a seemingly isolated spot of South Yorkshire, once part of the Celtic kingdom of Elmet, we find John Smythe, a bare-knuckle boxer living with his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy, in a self built house in a copse in an ancient forest. John appears to live with little support from the wider world; he forages, hunts and traps, and farms his food. When he works, he is paid in kind. His life is almost mediaeval. But in this story, narrated
  23. Wow. I mean, seriously, Wow! His Bloody Project masquerades as a plot driven historical crime novel, but is in fact a character driven exploration of a 19th century Scottish crofting community were a small number of people are forced to live in close proximity despite not liking one another. You know, right from the outset, that this is going to be a bit special when there are a series of contradictory statements from the Culduie residents about the murder of Lachlan Broad Mackenzie and the prime suspect, Roddy Macrae. Every statement was written in a distinctive voice, but all steeped
  24. I loved Reservoir 13 but I'm really not sure why. Do you know those letters that friends used to send at Christmas with all their news? The kind of hypnotic/soporific way all the news blends into one storyline, the banal and the significant presented with equal weight? Because that's pretty much what Reservoir 13 is, times thirteen. Rebecca Shaw, a teenage girl, goes missing. Each chapter of the novel reports another year since her disappearance, depicting the life of the village and its surrounds. There are couplings, fights, feuds. There are foxes and fieldfares. Ther
  25. From a Low and Quiet Sea is a difficult book to categorise. Is it a novel? Is it stories? Does it matter? In this case, I think it does. Most novels have a clear narrative arc. There is a beginning where we are introduced to characters and situations, then there is a quest where someone is looking for something, and then there's the end - usually when that something has been found (a happy novel) or irredeemably lost (a tragic novel). There will be a major plot development at exactly half way through, and mini-changes at one and two thirds of the way through. It makes
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