It seems like every jerk with a Twitter account is shilling a self-published e-book these days. While I’ve got nothing against digital prose, I prefer someone else to sort the quality from the nonsense. Fortunately, literary prizes do exactly that. The Booker Prize, awarded yearly to the best book by a Commonwealth author, released the long-list a few weeks ago. Here’s the top picks for your end-of-summer, relaxing-by-the-lake needs.
Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
The sequel to the 2009 Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies charts the most dangerous portion of Henry VIII’s rule, the destruction of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, from the perspective of his ruthless and intelligent minister Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s account of history is thorough but never stodgy, and she is almost gleeful in her depictions of characters as cruel, duplicitous and violent.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
Harold Fry is a man who sets out to send a letter to a friend dying of cancer and decides to keep walking. Across England. All the way from the southern shore to the border of Scotland. His idea is that as long as he walks, his friend will keep living. This book has all the pretences of being sappy, but it isn’t quite that. Fry is a disappointing husband. He’s a failed father. He’s chronically out of his depth. But Harold Fry is endearing, and his pilgrimage is funny and brutal in equal measure.
Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil
A dozen pages in, opium sounds pleasant. A dozen more and it sounds ghastly. Set in Bombay’s drug dens during the 1970s, Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis weaves together stories of dealers, hijras, Chinese exiles and criminals. Everyone’s an addict of one sort or another; Thayil writes about addiction from experience. His Bombay is rich in sensory details, encompassing crisp scents of chapatis and kheema pao, foul smells of retching addicts and dysentery, and the ever-present hum of casual and communal violence. This book is no mere Indian Trainspotting, but if you liked the one, I suspect you’ll like the other.