Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Five hot new books

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The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje. Photo / Supplied.
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje. Photo / Supplied.

Next month sees the announcement of the year's most anticipated literary award, the Man Booker Prize.

It is therefore fitting that the prize was once shared by two of the authors in this month's hotlist of promising new books.

In 1992 the judges could not decide between Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger.

When the judges announced that the award would be "shared", Ondaatje famously thought the award had gone to a hitherto unknown candidate by the name of "Cher".

Ondaatje's latest offering carries a strong link to the author's own childhood. In The Cat's Table an 11-year-old boy is sent by ocean liner from Ceylon to his mother in England in 1954, just as the author travelled to England at a similar age.

At mealtimes he is seated at the "cat's table" - the table furthest from the captain's - where he will dine with two other boys and a host of eccentric adults.

With childlike curiosity and fascination the three boys explore the ship, encountering human nature in all its guises, from secrecy and trickery to sickness and seduction, drugs, theft and, most enthralling of all, a mystery man in shackles, only brought out to exercise at night.

The journey that takes them across the world thus begins their passage to adulthood.

"It is, in the most etymological way, a wonderful novel: one full of wonders... It is richly enjoyable, often very funny, and gleams like a really smart liner on a sunny day," said the UK's Daily Telegraph.

Christine has chosen this book as her October feature read. Read on to find out how you could win a copy.

While The English Patient is still well known, thanks largely to the film adaptation, fans of Sacred Hunger have had to wait 20 years for its standalone sequel, The Quality of Mercy.

First, some background. Sacred Hunger follows the crew of a slave ship plying the Atlantic. When disease breaks out, the captain orders the surviving slaves be thrown overboard, their insured value being greater than the sale price of a sick slave. The crew mutiny and establish an egalitarian settlement in Florida.

The Quality of Mercy takes up the tale a few years later, when the ship owner's son has had the crew - whom he blames for his father's death by suicide - brought back to London to face charges of mutiny and piracy.

It's a tale of justice, capitalism and murky moral boundaries. The Scotsman described it as "the work of one who is both artist and craftsman. There is not a page without interest, not a sentence that rings false. It is gripping and moving, a novel about justice which is worthy of that theme. In short, it is a tremendous achievement, as good as anything this great novelist has written."

To round out this month's fix, we're going to cheat outrageously on the premise of this blog by suggesting three non-fiction books, all of which investigate the experiences of strong women of the 21st century.

Two of the books provide a new take on often-chronicled lives. That Woman by journalist Anne Sebba delves into newly available archives to flesh out the slim frame of Wallis Simpson, the enigmatic American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII abdicated.

Sebba argues that Simpson never loved the King - in fact she privately ridiculed him - though she did fall for the trappings of his lifestyle, and suggests she did the Empire a favour by luring him from the throne.

As you can guess from the title, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent digs a truckload of dirt on the revered designer. Writer Hal Vaughan concentrates on the "hidden years" of Chanel's life - 1941 to 1954 - when she experimented with more than just hemlines.

She took up spying for the Nazis and, yes, literally sleeping with the enemy (a German officer with whom she had an affair), while generally living the good life with the Nazi occupiers of France.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorhead, chronicles the experiences of less fortunate and less famous women during World War II.

Moorhead tells the story of 230 French women resisters who were put on a train to Auschwitz in January 1943. Says the UK Daily Telegraph: A Train in Winter bears eloquent witness to the moral and material ruin of collaborationist France."

But back to the Man Booker Prize, Bronwyn has chosen as her October feature book the novel widely predicted to win (which probably means it won't), The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

To enter our competition to win a copy of both The Sense of an Ending and The Cat's Table, click here and tell us whether awards like the Man Booker influence your reading choices, and why.

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