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review 2018-09-27 00:41
Review: Washington Black
Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is an imaginative novel that crosses boundaries, boundaries that exist in the story and boundaries that tend to hem in literature. It is a novel that is not easily classifiable, because it is very literary, but it also shows traits of fantasy and adventure. It is historical in setting, but does not allow this to confine its reach. A story of self discovery, Washington Black explores the topics of suffering and rebirth. It sounds like a fantastic novel, and the opening chapters prove this. What a perfect beginning! At 35 pages in, I knew I'd found the best novel of the year, an easy five-star rating. So what happened?

The fact is, Washington Black does little to sustain the wonder created in the opening chapters. The first several chapters are perfect. They're brutal, intelligent, and imaginative. I truly couldn't ask for more. The story opens with an amazingly drawn cast of characters, slaves and plantation owners on an estate in Barbados. We see the plight of the other slaves, as well as the conflicting natures of the plantation owner with his abolitionist-minded brother, through the eyes of young Washington Black—called Wash. The brutality of this particular plantation and the wonders set in motion by the brother, Titch, a scientist, create such a wonderful contrast. It's easy to imagine where this story might be going when Titch takes Wash under his wing, but it's a place that you, as the reader, want the story to go. It's magical, heartwarming, and full of imagery so palpable you can't deny its existence: a Vernes-esque journey around the world with a kindhearted scientist and his assistant, a child freed from slavery.

Unfortunately, this novel just can't maintain the forward movement it needs to claim its potential. The characters, while starting off great, did little to keep me invested in their stories. Sure, their adventure is wonderful, but their actions are wooden and their decisions based on inexplicable coincidences. They failed to carry me along on their adventure. The longer the story went on, the less I believed the magic the story was built on, the less I cared about the narrative.

In the end, I was left with too many questions, but not enough desire to find answers. What was really going on here? In a novel largely based on realism, it is easy to pick out the fantastical elements and analyze them. What was with the allusions to the spiritual personas of our characters: others that roam free of their selves? The existence of these “others” makes me wonder. Who was Washington Black? Was he a spirit of the self that existed in the opening chapters, a spirit making his way back to Dahomey? Was he reborn in the child Titch finds in Morocco? At the conclusion of Washington Black, I don't have any answers, only speculations. These questions display the intelligence of this novel and its author, but highlight the problem that it doesn't go far enough to provide answers or the will to learn the truth.

Washington Black is a powerful and imaginative story with so many great pieces. The writing is exceptionally powerful at times. It just doesn't keep it going, however, and the result is a firework that fizzles out long before the end. I recommend this novel to others, but with the caveat not to build your expectations too high in the beginning. Perhaps if I'd not done so, I would've walked away with warmer feelings regarding this story.


Thanks to the publisher, Knopf Publishing Group, for providing me early access to this title through NetGalley.

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review 2018-09-09 00:55
Review: The Mars Room
The Mars Room - Rachel Kushner

At the time Rachel Kushner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, was released, I was very much interested in the story. Before it had even hit shelves, I was enticed by the cover and the promise of a thrilling tale within. Well, curse the infinite to-read list. While I've held the best intentions of reading Kushner's work all this time, it took a Man Booker Prize nomination to finally make the commitment, a commitment to read her following novel, The Mars Room.

The Mars Room is the story of Romy Hall and her fellow prisoners at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility. Though I have nothing more than a reader's perspective of what prison might be like, Kushner's story carries significant believability. This is a prison novel that seems wrapped in precision and one might assume, with the flood of details from both inside and outside of the prison walls, that the author has done her research. An article published in The New Yorker points to this attention to detail (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...). According to the article, this precision is indicative of her work. In each of her three novels, Kushner has immersed herself in the details of the story. For The Mars Room, Kushner began visiting prisons in 2014 and has utilized the help of consultants who've given her information that only an insider could possess, stories that are rendered in the novel with little alteration.

Some may argue that The Mars Room isn't strictly a prison novel as much of the action happens outside of the prison gates, but I get the impression that Kushner is painting the outside as a sort of prison, as well. Outside, there are a set of rules that restrict one from pursuing true freedom. Many of these characters were set on a path, some at birth, some because of something completely outside of their control, that had only one outcome. It's possible to get a sense that Kushner was hoping to establish a connection between the American prison system and the “Great American Dream.”

Outside of the vivid detail, what's most impressive are the characters. It's clear that Kushner spent some time with them. She knows them well, giving each a very developed voice and perspective. These characters go beyond Romy and the other prisoners of Stanville. Kushner tells the story of prison's teacher, of a corrupt cop, of a trans woman in a men's prison. Each of these stories carries with it a whole other world, completely rendered and discerning.

And this is perhaps where The Mars Room turns a bit sour. While these extra characters certainly show Kushner's great ability to work inside the minds' of a myriad of possible characters, their connection to the larger story is in some cases weak or entirely nonexistent. Some of the novel's best scenes certainly come from these diversions, but they detract from what is an otherwise solid narrative. When it becomes clear toward the end that these many threads are not necessarily joined, The Mars Room loses something of its believability in its loss of continuity. While there is a complete novel in here, it is joined by stories that are merely connected by theme.

Certainly, it didn't help that in the end, the story moves in a direction that deviates some from the overarching sense of realism. The conclusion isn't absurd, by any means, but it did strike me as slightly inauthentic. In fact, I'd say this ending would've been sufficient in the work of many less skilled authors, but coming from the author who'd established 300 pages of piercing authenticity, it had a bit too much of the made-for-tv-movie effect.

I will not be surprised or offended to see The Mars Room make this year's shortlist. There are probably too many strikes against it to take home the prize—primarily, or so I believe, that an American author cannot win a third year in a row. In a year when the longlist has been particularly sub par, in my opinion, I think Kushner has a decent chance of being invited to London this October.

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review 2018-08-22 17:12
Review: Sabrina
Sabrina - Nick Drnaso

Everyone who follows the Man Booker seems to have an opinion regarding the inclusion of Sabrina on the longlist. The rules of the Man Booker Prize state that a work must be “unified and substantial” and “written originally in English.” By this definition, Nick Drnaso's Sabrina, a graphic novel, qualifies. Traditionally, the Prize does not make exceptions, so when it does, these extensions throw readers into the path of confusion. In my personal opinion, it should not have been included. I also think 2016's All That Man Isshould not have been a contender. Though it was billed as a novel, no one was tricked; it was a short story collection unified only by theme. Sabrina's inclusion is a bit more gray.

But I want to judge the work without the Man Booker in mind, though I will come back to the Prize in the end.

Sabrina starts with a slow build up. The groundwork is placed and a quietness is established. The problem in these opening pages is not with the story, but with the illustrations. They leave much to be desired. I had great difficulty in identifying the characters or their ages, as the artist portrays all people as stocky and plain faced. By appearance, this novel aligns more with the idea of “comics” than of what some of us have come to expect from “graphic novels.” (It irritates me a little that this will be the first graphic novel experience for many readers. For those interested in the form, I recommend Craig Thompson's Habibi for an amazing blend of story and art.)

The story picks up toward the middle as answers are unexpectedly provided. The following pages tell a riveting tale that very much asks questions of cultural relevance. That's where the story is. It's not in the mystery of a missing woman; it's in how American society handles tragedy. It's a story that could've been told in another form, possibly, but I'm not convinced it could've been done so well. And it doesn't matter, because it was Drnaso's story and this is his media. I wish the art had been better rendered, but the vision of how the story was meant to be lain out was perfect. Overall, I really enjoyed this story. It will stick with me for year's to come.

I do want to return to the Man Booker briefly and say that I'm a little hurt by Drnaso's response to being longlisted. This is a huge honor, but Drnaso's never heard of the Prize and seems irritated that it has interfered with his art and his day-to-day life (http://www.vulture.com/2018/07/nick-d...). Forget the Pulitzer, the Nobel, and even Employee of the Month—I want a Man Booker nomination. I really liked this work and hope that it finds some fans amongst a tough crowd, but given his irritation at the nomination, let's help Drnaso is not further inconvenienced by being shortlisted.

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review 2018-08-22 16:10
Review: From a Low and Quiet Sea
From a Low and Quiet Sea - Donal Ryan

Man, oh man, what a rough start to my Man Booker Prize year. Snap and Warlight were both terribly difficult to get through. Snap just wasn't Man Booker material; Warlight was a sleepy, emotionless read. But when I started in on From a Low and Quiet Sea, I saw brilliance and beauty and I knew that Man Booker season had taken a turn for the better. Hallelujah! And then, it took a turn, and another turn, and another. In the end I was so confused and lost. I don't know what happened. Let's go back to the beginning...

From a Low and Quiet Sea starts great. There's a beautiful meditation about the connectedness of trees. This serves as a metaphor for the story that follows—how we're all connected, how when one tree ails, others send nutrients through the soil. What follows are three seemingly unrelated stories that come together in the end. The first of these stories is about Farouk, a Syrian refugee struggling to provide a new life for this family. It's a common theme as of late, particularly in European literature, and there's nothing that feels fresh about this particular story, but it's done with great empathy and care. It was just enough to give me hope for a satisfying novel.

The second story was fine and in some way superior to the first, but in a book billed as a novel, a reader expects some connection to the first story. It's in no way evident. What we're given is the story of Lampy, an attendant at a care home. This story largely revolves around some mishaps Lampy has while driving these elderly people to their various appointments. This second story was as riveting as the first, but it felt more authentic.

And then, I don't know what happened. There's a third story, but the details of it felt disjointed. A religious man, John, clearing his conscious—lots of back story about the unexpected death of a sibling, an abusive sister, his own abuses, politics. I lost the story here. Unfortunately, I never found it again.

The final section attempts to connect all these threads, but it does so not in a direct manner, but by bringing in other perspectives. Attempts of cleverness are made by not naming characters immediately, but by referring to them. Other characters are introduced and blur with these primary characters. I didn't know what was going on anymore and I didn't care. This may have been a result of my own daftness, but I suspect it had more to do with the author being closer to the material than his reader. Whatever the reason, I didn't understand what the point was, or why so much effort was placed on putting these characters together.

In the end, I felt tricked. This wasn't a novel. It was a collection of three stories with some coincidental connection in the final pages. A connection that felt forced. A connection I still struggle to understand. But From a Low and Quiet Sea is still more of a novel than 2016 nominee, All That Man Is, so there's that.

I'm sure that I'll come across more works of Ryan's in the future, and I'm okay with that, because I liked his writing style and when this “novel” was strong, it was strong. It just lost something along the way and, in turn, it succeeded in losing me.

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review 2018-08-22 15:59
Review: Warlight
Warlight - Michael Ondaatje

What a revelatory follow-up to fellow Man Booker nominee Snap:Warlight that is. Suddenly I understand just how much Yankees love their cop dramas and Brits love their espionage. And I'm hoping these are the two worst this year's long list has to offer.

In my review of Snap, I ranted a bit about my dislike for the modern crime novel. Mysteries in general are very boring to me. I don't care about the crime. Well, guess what? Spy stories are a chore too. But I won't bore you with more on that...

I was looking forward to Warlight. Aside from a poetry collection, I haven't read the work of Michael Ondaatje before. I expected good things. But from page one, I found this novel lacking. The novel is split into two part: before “revelation” and after. The two parts felt like two different stories stylistically. The first part was a bit more coming-of-age story and I was curious where it was going. But I never quite felt invested in the story. I failed to understand Nathaniel, our protagonist. I never developed a connection with him, who seemed more like a means to tell the story than as a character in it. This is especially true in the second half as the story follows Nathaniel into adulthood, but never gives a clear picture of who Nathaniel is at this point. The story is painfully non-chronological, which is necessary for the storyline, but jarring for the reader. Further, Nathaniel as narrator becomes lost in the story. Suddenly, his story opens up to include details and perspectives he could not know. Have we switched to an omniscient narrator? Are these just possibilities Nathaniel is considering? It's not quite clear and this, along with a time line that's all over the place, makes for a novel that was not pleasurable to read.

And then there's all the espionage talk. Slog.

On a positive note, there are some wonderful scenes and finely crafted moments, particularly in the first half of the novel. I didn't care for Nathaniel as a character, but I did appreciate his relationship with Rachel, his relationship with The Darter and with Agnes. Nathaniel has a gentle and unique perspective of others, but this perspective doesn't translate to the larger story. The result is a rather dry narrative.

I'd expected more from my first real outing with Ondaatje, but I'll certainly return to the author. As for this novel, I wasn't impressed. The characters largely failed to pull me in and the plot wasn't strong enough to lift this plot-driven tale.

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