Heart-stoppers and lite bites

Man Booker Prize: the shortlist
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The Independent Culture

The Man Booker shortlist was announced this week. There were three debuts on the list; this is unusual for Booker, which tends to be wary of very new talent. This year's shortlist is also unusual in that it features four women. Booker has been criticised in the past for its poor track record on recognising the talent of women novelists (Beryl Bainbridge comes to mind). Indeed the Orange Prize owes its existence to Booker's blindness on this score. While both these developments are to be applauded, the shortlist looks as though quotas, not quality, were the issue.

Take Monica Ali's much discussed debut, Brick Lane (Doubleday). It's the perfect middlebrow read: the light and charming story of not-too-alien, not-too-politicised and above all not-too-Muslim Bangladeshis living in Tower Hamlets. It'll be a funny old world if this wins when White Teeth didn't.

DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little (Faber) is extremely funny at times and its set-up - the aftermath of a Columbine-style high school massacre - is also grimly fascinating. On the other hand, being inside the head of a Texan Kevin the teenager fixated on bodily functions gets just a little wearing after a while.

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (Bloomsbury) is a futuristic fantasy that begins promisingly but becomes increasingly laboured, particularly in its use of tiresome neologisms like "pigoon". She's been better.

Justin Cartwright (overleaf) considers the probable appeal for prize judges of The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut (Atlantic). It looks like Coetzee-lite for a year in which J M Coetzee himself didn't write a proper novel. Clare Morrall's debut Astonishing Splashes of Colour (Tindal Street) is the big surprise on this year's list - she's an unknown 51-year-old previously unable to find a publisher. And no one is more surprised than our reviewer, who noted that, though the story has patches of humour, "the strain of maintaining sympathy with the narrator for 300 pages can be overwhelming." Charming, even gripping at times, but not without flaws.

Of all the six, Zoë Heller's second novel, Notes on a Scandal (Viking), would probably make it on to our own Man Booker shortlist. A study of friendship, jealousy and self-deception, it's both compassionate and acute. So we'll let Heller remain on our list, along with:

Julie Myerson's gripping Something Might Happen (Cape), which opens with one heart-stopper (literally) - an insane killer in a small, twee coastal town - and ends with another disaster from a totally unexpected quarter.

Shena Mackay's cool and cunning Heligoland (Cape), a tale of south London eccentrics and egomaniacs is, sentence by sentence, a pure delight to read.

Colum McCann eerily inhabits the body of Nureyev for Dancer (Weidenfeld), a dazzling, multi-viewpoint epic which ranges from grim Russian steppes to the stages of the world via the bathhouses of New York. A chilling insight into the empty heart of celebrity.

Helen Dunmore's Mourning Ruby (Viking) is a heartbreaking, unsettling and profound novel about a couple mourning their child. Dunmore has a light poet's touch and leaves you, tantalisingly, with more questions than answers.

Finally, our reviewer loved Rose Tremain's The Colour. The tale of the people sucked up in New Zealand's gold rush is a magnificent historical novel from a great, buttonholing storyteller.

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