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October 2009 book of the month shortlist
For Julian Barnes, it was "posh bingo", for Nicci Gerrard "a grand folly". The Booker prize is rarely without controversy. What, then, of the 2009 shortlist? This year's pick actually seems to have found popular approval.
Every one of the six books on the list explores the past in some form. Could this be our definitive national comfort reading? We have 16th century (Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall), 19th-century (Adam Foulds' The Quickening Maze) and austerity Britain (Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger). And the names aren't new either: JM Coetzee (Summertime) and AS Byatt (The Children's Book) are looking at a return visit to the winner's podium, while Waters and Mantel are regular contenders.
Top odds are currently on Wolf Hall. But in terms of book sales, The Little Stranger is number one. As the Observer pointed out, both Waters and Mantel must hope that the darkest horse (Simon Mawer's The Glass Room) becomes the front runner. If the history of this prize teaches anything, it is that the favourite never wins.
Browse the Booker shortlist below and vote for your favourite to become book club's October book of the month. The poll closes at Monday 28 September at midnight.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Though set in Henry VIII's court and imbued with all the gory splendour of his reign, Wolf Hall is really the story of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's boy who became the king's right-hand man. This pirate from the Putney riverbank ascends through the ranks to become Henry's most trusted guide: "He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." By centring her narrative on the humane and free-thinking Cromwell, who believes in kindness, tolerance and education, Mantel completely refreshes the tale of Henry's lust and what it led to. Mantel has always been obsessed by the capriciousness of fortune and in a novel full of bounds and tumbles, she provides a masterclass in the tragic arc of ascent and decline. Burstingly sensual, densely peopled and full of linguistic vitality, this is a truly Great English Novel.
Critics say: "A stunning book. It breaks free of what the novel has become nowadays. I can't think of anything since Middlemarch which so convincingly builds a world." Diana Athill
Summertime by J.M.Coetzee
From 1972-1977 Coetzee was sharing a cottage in the suburbs of Cape Town with his widowed father. This book is an imagined biography of this time, seen through a series of interviews with people who were important to him - a married woman with whom he had an affair, his favourite cousin Margot, a Brazilian dancer whose daughter had English lessons with him, former friends and colleagues. From their testimony emerges a portrait of the young Coetzee as an awkward, bookish individual. Within the family he is regarded as an outsider, someone who tried to flee the tribe and has now returned, chastened. His insistence on doing manual work, his long hair and beard, rumours that he writes poetry evoke nothing but suspicion in the South Africa of the time. Sometimes heartbreaking, often very funny, it portrays a life as it really is: multi-faceted, fractured in perspective and rich in contradiction.
Critics say: "The cumulative effect of Coetzee's unblinking honesty and...seriousness, is an understanding of the creation of a great writer." Sunday Telegraph
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Having tackled a Victorian trilogy and a 1940s love triangle, this multi-talented author moves on to a ghost story set in Austerity Britain. As always, it is exciting, atmospheric, gripping, haunting and unputdownable. During a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling and its gardens choked with weeds. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his. Another cracking yarn from a natural born storyteller, this is wonderfully spooky and satisfying. Just the thing for Halloween.
Critics say: "A gripping story, with beguiling characters...As well as being a supernatural tale, it is a meditation on the nature of the British and class, and how things are rarely what they seem. Chilling." The Times
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newly weds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. A classic work of modern design, the centerpiece of the house is the Glass Room, a place where anything and everything is possible, as previous structural and cultural restraints are lifted. But soon Hitler's national socialism spreads through nearby Germany, and the livelihood of Jews in Czechoslovakia becomes progressively more difficult. The Landauers initially ignore the warnings, and agree to take in a young woman who has been forced to flee from Vienna. When the couple decide to flee their beloved house and country, the novel alternates between their lives and the house's new occupants, leading up to Liesel's eventual return to her previous idyll. Love, infidelity and devotion are infused throughout the book, along with vivid descriptions of art, architecture and music, but ultimately the main story and character is the house itself.
Critics say: "A spellbinding novel about modernism, architecture and 20th-century Europe. A story as breathtaking as the building in which it is set." Sunday Telegraph
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
In the depths of 19th century Epping Forest hides a secluded little community. High Beach Private Asylum claims to be a compassionate and humane institution built around occupational therapy, owned by the ambitious quack Dr Matthew Allen. After years struggling with alcohol, critical neglect and depression, nature poet John Clare finds himself a patient; at the same time another poet, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and becomes entangled in the life and catastrophic schemes of Dr Allen. Historically accurate, but brilliantly imagined, the closed world of High Beach and its various inmates - the doctor, his lonely daughter in love with Tennyson, the brutish staff and Clare himself - are brought vividly to life. A tale brimming with Victorian venality, brutality and dark passion.
Critics say: "A seamless blend of historical fact and fiction...Foulds' writing has a poetic intensity." Daily Mail
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
Olive Wellwood is a famous writer, who writes a private book for each of her children, bound in different colours and placed on a shelf. In their rambling house they play in a story-book world, but their lives, and those of their rich cousins and London friends, are already inscribed with mystery. And the times are changing: born at the end of the Victorian era, growing up in the golden summers of Edwardian times, a whole generation are heading to the darkness of the First World War; sons rebel against their parents' plans; the girls dream of independent futures, becoming doctors or fighting for the vote. Childhood is fleeting. Byatt's tightly woven plot is bursting with ideas and cleverness.
Critics say: "Intellectual zest keeps the book sizzling with ideas...this is the most stirring novel Byatt has written since Possession." Sunday Times
Vote for the book you'd most like to be October's Book Club read. The poll closes at midnight on Monday 28 Sept.