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The Booker Prize 2011 Shortlist Reviewed

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Thrice-shortlisted author Julian Barnes is the favorite among gamblers to win the Man Booker Prize 2011.

But is his the best book on the shortlist? All six are written from the point of view of fictional narrators. Which ones are worth reading, and which ones truly aren't?

Here below is our Book Editor's reviews of the entire Man Booker Prize shortlist, along with short excerpts from each book.

Have you read any of these books? Which one do you think will win? Let us know in the comments!

"Half Blood Blues" by Esi Edugyan (Picador, US release date: February 2012)

What is it about?
Set between Berlin in 1992, and Berlin and Paris in the 1930s, "Half Blood Blues" tells the story of jazz musicians Chip Jones and Sid Griffiths, who played their music behind closed doors as the Nazis marched outside. One of their bandmates, a young trumpeter called Hiero Falk, was arrested by stormtroopers, and never seen again.

In 1992, Chip and Sid attend the screening of a documentary about Falk's music; however, tucked inside Chip's pocket is a letter that suggests that Hiero's fate may not have been as they assumed.

Excerpt:

All of a sudden, Chip give me a look of surprise from his dark corner.

Kid wasn't even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with a unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, this barely held-in chaos, and Hiero hisself was the lid.

I pulled back some as he come in, fearing we was going to overpower him in that narrow closet. But he just soften it down with me, blur it up. Then he blast out one pure, brilliant note, and I thought, my god.

I might've been crying. It was the sound of something growing a crust, some watery thing finally gelling.

What's good about it?
The book describes jazz music in a beautiful, lyrical manner. The characters and their situations are engaging and sometimes gripping, compensating for occasional missteps in Edugyan's writing style. The narrator makes for pleasant company throughout the tale.

It also describes a footnote in history about which this reviewer was previously ignorant – the fate of black Germans under the Nazis – and does so in a believable manner.

What's bad about it?
Some characters are poorly drawn, which means that their fates, when revealed, aren't very meaningful. Sometimes, events feel a little contrived, in particular the visit to the zoo in Hamburg.

Is it worth reading?
Yes. It's a good read, with warm yet flawed characters, and it wears its historical research lightly.

Click next for a review of "Jamrach's Menagerie" by Carol Birch

"Jamrach's Menagerie" by Carol Birch (Doubleday, $24.95)

What's it about?
Jaffy Brown, a London street urchin, encounters a tiger, which picks him up in its teeth, but doesn't bite. The tiger's owner, Mr Jamrach, is so impressed, he gives Jaffy a job in his menagerie. There, Jaffy encounters Tim, a boy of a similar age, who has a pretty twin sister.

The two boys are recruited to go on a ship to the Dutch East Indies, to hunt down a fabled dragonlike creature. The voyage doesn't go to plan, and the pair find themselves in a lifeboat, desperate for survival.

Excerpt:

When I slept I dreamed of groaning tables and feasts of plenty, and woke adrool to see Dan with his head tilted back, storm-battered face talking to the sky. “Well, well,” he said in a low sing-song “my sore runs in the night and ceases not, indeed it does. Oh indeedy.” His tongue, swollen and grey like a giant tick, flipped useless over his lips. “I breathe therefore I am. Thinking doesn't come into it.” He sucked a little blood from his arm, a meditative look on his face. Caught my eye and cracked a V-shaped smile. His brows had dropped and grown fierce and hairy.

“You know you used to say, Don't worry, I've been in worse than this?” I said. “Well, you can't know can you? Not anymore.”

What's good about it?
The descriptions of the dragon are quite evocative. There are some gruesomely memorable descriptions of survival and death in a lifeboat, if that's your thing. It's based heavily on various true events, apparently. It has a pretty cover.

What's bad about it?
It's not very good. Its descriptions of 19th-century London feel very similar to those of 17th-century London in Neal Stephenson's "The Baroque Cycle", though nowhere near as engaging or well drawn. Many poorly described characters are dispensed with far too easily.

And on many levels, it's extremely similar to "The Life of Pi", the 2002 winner about a zoo, a boy, a tiger, a shipwreck and cannibalism. Except this book is nowhere near as engaging as Yann Martel's bestseller.

Is it worth reading?
Perhaps, if you're interested in a novelist's take on historical documents related to cannibalism at sea. Otherwise, not so much.

Click next to read a review of "Pigeon English" by Stephen Kelman

"Pigeon English" by Stephen Kelman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.00)

What is it about?
Our narrator is an eleven-year-old boy called Harrison Opuku, who lives in a housing project in London. Recently immigrated from Ghana, he and his best friend investigate the death of one of his classmates, while interacting with the borderline-criminal community of his school and in the projects.

First-time novelist Kelman grew up in similar housing projects to those he describes, and this book comes from a desire to reflect this world in a more truthful, less stereotypical manner than that which is portrayed in much of the British media.

Excerpt:

Daniel Bevan might die soon. He can't even run at all. Do you know what's an inhaler? It's a little can of special air. Daniel Bevan has one, he needs it to breathe because he has asthma. He has to breathe the air from the can because the air outside is too dirty for him. That's why he can't run. If his special air ever ran out he'd die.

He let me try his inhaler. It felt very cold. It tasted funny. It was brutal. I wanted it to make my voice go like a robot but it didn't work this time. If Daniel Bevan dies before me I can have his ruler. We even shook hands on it. It's bo-styles, it's even got its own calculator built in.

What's good about it?
Opuku is a genuinely likeable personality, and though at times his narrative meanders, his unusual way of seeing the world makes this less frustrating than it could be. It's in turns funny and tragic, and is a very fast read.

Though some of its slang can be hard to decipher, and the differences between modern-day London and the USA are many, it's message is universal enough to make this more than a literary curio for Anglophiles. It also has the best cover of any of the shortlist.

What's bad about it?
At certain points, short paragraphs are inserted from the point of view of a pigeon; these sections distract the reader from the story, distance us unnecessarily from Opuku's world, and feel too self-consciously literary. The wandering plot can also get a little irritating at times.

Is it worth reading?
Yes, especially if you're interested in understanding a very different side of the UK; though the story may seem to lose focus about a third of the way through, it's worth persevering. Though the story's end is fairly inevitable, like our narrator, you might not see it coming – which only adds to its considerable emotional impact.

Click next to read a review of "Snowdrops" by A.D. Miller

"Snowdrops" by A.D. Miller (Doubleday, $24.95)

What is it about?
Nick Platt is a British lawyer working in Moscow, a place where secrets, like corpses in the snow, remain hidden – although they're almost always discovered in the end.

One day, he rescues two pretty young women from a purse snatcher on the subway. Soon, he becomes romantically involved with one of them, and learns that the other is her sister. Before long, Platt finds himself involved in a series of increasingly complex situations with the two women, some good, some not.

Excerpt:

For an hour on the rattling train, I remember, the three of us were jostled by a kind of shabby cabaret – a chain of beggars and hawkers chasing each other through the carriages, selling beer, pens, cigarettes, roasted sunflower seeds, bootleg DVDs, all-purpose perfume (for wearing or drinking). Or they were playing the accordion or explaining how they'd lost a leg or a husband in Chechnya. There were prostitutes, runaways, assorted human sacrifices. I gave a hundred roubles to an old woman with a lopsided face and a thin coat. At about three o'clock, I think, we got off.

What's good about it?
Miller was the Moscow correspondent for The Economist between 2004 and 2007; the city and the inherent corruption he writes about are believable and well described. The power of this book comes not from its narrative but from the deeper understanding it conveys of post-communist Russia. As a narrative, it's not particularly gripping; as a cultural guidebook for people considering a move to Moscow, it is outstanding.

What's bad about it?
The plot's supposed twists are about as visible as a bucket of blood on virgin snow, which can make it a tedious read at times.

Is it worth reading?
If you're interested in Muscovite life in the early 2000s, it's definitely worth picking up. Otherwise, you probably have better things to read.

Click next to read a review of "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

"The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes (Knopf, $23.95)

What is it about?
The story is told by Tony Webster, a British man in his early 60s. One day, he receives a strange letter from the mother of a girl he went out with briefly in high school. He starts to sift through memories from nearly 50 years earlier, and discovers that everything upon which he had based much of his life might not have been as he had assumed.

Excerpt:

I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However... who said that thing about “the littleness of life that art exaggerates”? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.

What's good about it?
Barnes' narrator is extremely good at making broad statements about memory and aging without them seeming portentous or out of place. As the story unfolds, broader truths about life are revealed. Characters that appear only fleetingly still feel well rounded and immensely believable.

And the final 30 pages are as intense and moving as any this reviewer has read this year. When this short book ends, you feel both sad and relieved. This is the kind of book that sits with you longer than you expect, that you want to reread, and you want others to read so that you can discuss it with them. It might even have changed this reviewer a tiny bit, which is, after all, why we read at all.

What's bad about it?
The first two thirds of this book, while well written, feel irrelevant and mildly irritating. Sure, many details are being carefully placed for the reader to make sense of later – but they aren't a great read in of themselves. When this reviewer was 80 pages into the book, he was sure that this going to be a highly negative review. Also, its cover isn't very engaging.

Is it worth reading?
Definitely. This reviewer had thought that Barnes was the favorite because he was the most well-known name on the shortlist. In fact, it's because this is not only one of his very best books – but also by far the best on the list.

Click to read a review of the final book on the shortlist, "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick deWitt

"The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick deWitt (Ecco, $24.99)

What is it about?
Eli Sisters and his brother Charlie are renowned killers in the Old West. They've been sent to California to find a man who has angered their employer, The Commodore. As they travel, they become involved in a variety of escapades, which make Eli, the narrator, start to question the path he has chosen. By the time they catch up with the man they are chasing, the pair are no longer certain about what to do – kill him or join him?

Excerpt:

We rode around the three wagons but saw no sign of life save for the small fire at its center. Charlie called out a greeting but received no response. He dismounted and moved to enter the circle by climbing over the hitches of two adjoining wagons when the barrel of a bulky rifle emerged silently, viperlike from one of the canopies. Charlie stared up at the gun, his eyes slightly crossing. 'Okay,' he said.

What's good about it?
The Sisters brothers of the title become engaged in some fun scrapes, but most entertaining is how the tales of drink, women and gunfire are told through the eyes of the thoughtful Eli. The story also flies by far more quickly than the size of the book might suggest – partly because the book's clever interior design hides how short the tale actually is. In compensation, there is some extremely pleasing use of typography and illustration on its pages. And the cover is fantastic.

What's bad about it?
A couple of dream sequences (labeled amusingly as “intermissions”) are strange breaks in the narrative that add little to the reader's enjoyment or comprehension of the story. Many of the escapades also become repetitive and a little dull, feeling a little like overwritten distractions to keep the main characters from reaching their goal too quickly. Eli matures into his role as narrator, but early on, the book struggles to maintain interest in its tale.

Is it worth reading?
There are worse books out there, particularly set in the Old West. This one certainly has its moments, both funny and poignant, and it's a breezy read. This is the kind of book to take with you on a long journey, during which you don't mind falling asleep. It won't be hard to pick up the slight narrative again on the other side of your slumber.

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