The Man Booker Prize is Britain’s Super Bowl of literary events. Bookies even lay odds on the winners; try doing that with the PEN/Faulkner Award. This year’s finalists, chosen from novels written by citizens of the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland, include four first-time nominees, including two debut novelists, and all of the stories center on males who find themselves out of place in the world. The winner of the $78,000 prize will be announced Tuesday by the chair of the judges’ committee, Stella Rimington, the former director-general of MI5, who writes spy thrillers. Here’s a primer so you can follow along at home:
-Four-time finalist Julian Barnes, whose “The Sense of an Ending” (Knopf, $23.95) was just released in the United States, is considered the front-runner by oddsmakers. This slim novel portrays Tony Webster, a retired grandfather who’s reconsidering his role in a decades-old tragedy. . His “curiosity turns into obsession” when an old girlfriend refuses to hand over a diary written by a mutual friend who committed suicide years ago. While trying to persuade her, Webster finds himself excavating the past, searching for scraps of memory that will exonerate or condemn him for their friend’s death. “With his characteristic grace and skill, Barnes manages to turn this cat-and-mouse game into something genuinely suspenseful,” Jeff Turrentine wrote last week in The Post.
-A 19th-century street urchin gets snatched from the jaws of a tiger, only to end up on a doomed voyage inspired by the Essex in Carol Birch’s “Jamrach’s Menagerie” (Doubleday, $25.95), her 11th novel but her first published in the United States. Fifteen-year-old Jaffy is deputized to participate in a South Seas hunt for a Komodo dragon by an employer who specializes in exotic animals. Birch handles the inevitable comparisons to “Moby-Dick” with aplomb, Post fiction editor Ron Charles wrote in his June review. “ ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ is a moving, fantastically exciting sea tale that takes you back to those great 19th-century stories that first convinced you ‘there is no frigate like a book.’ ”
-“If Eli and Charles Sisters come after you, brush up your will. Run and they’ll find you. Deal and they’ll trick you. Draw and they’ll shoot you,” wrote Charles in his May review of “The Sisters Brothers” (Ecco, $24.99), Patrick deWitt’s bloody buddy story set in 1851. This captivating story is told by Eli Sisters, a reluctant murderer who would rather be a shopkeeper. Still, a job’s a job, and at least he gets to work with his brother. DeWitt, a Canadian writer who now lives in Oregon, “rides parallel to the trails of Jack Schaefer, James Carlos Blake and Cormac McCarthy,” Charles wrote, “but he frequently crosses into comic territory to produce a story that’s weirdly funny, startlingly violent and steeped in sadness.”
-The Beatles’ breakup has nothing on the dissolution of the Hot-Time Swingers. The 1930s band “played the greatest clubs of Europe,” narrator Sidney Griffiths recalls in“Half-Blood Blues” (coming from Picador on March 1). Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan knows as much about European racism as she does about the era’s jazz and slang. The Swingers lost three players during their escape from Nazi Germany. And their resident genius, teenage trumpeter Hieronymous Falk, was rounded up and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp on the morning after they recorded their greatest work, “Half-Blood Blues.” Fifty years later, Sid and drummer Chip Jones are headed back to Europe for a documentary on Falk, a German of African descent who was declared stateless by the Nazis. As Sid recalls the Swingers’ last days in hiding, we realize he may have had more than a little in common with the jealous Salieri from “Amadeus.”
-Stephen Kelman’s first novel, “Pigeon English” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24), is based on the true tale of a 10-year-old Nigerian who was murdered in London in 2000, Charles explained in his August review. “That death sentence hangs at the end of this story, but Kelman writes in such a buoyant, delightful voice that you’ll want to forget where the novel is headed.” Another boy’s murder opens the book, and, inspired by “C.S.I,” Harrison Opoku and his friend decide they’ll track down the killers. The book is marred by Kelman’s decision to add a guardian pigeon with “a touch of ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull,’ but whether Harrison is explaining the rules of farting or the tragedy of gang killings, there’s a sweetness here that’s irresistible.”
-If you believe post-Soviet Russia is populated mainly by thugs and “desperate, leggy women,” A.D. Miller’s clever but shallow first novel, “Snowdrops” (Doubleday, $24.95), won’t disabuse you of that notion. “In Russia,” a character says, “there are no love stories. There are only crime stories.” (Tolstoy and Pushkin would despair.) British attorney Nick Platt prevents a mugging at a Moscow subway station, and the two girls he saves reward him by involving him in a scheme to steal a retired widow’s apartment. Meanwhile, his firm is trying to facilitate an oil pipeline deal for an ex-KGB agent, a character so thinly sketched that he could be a bad guy on “Burn Notice.” But Miller, an editor at the Economist, has a journalist’s eye for the telling detail. The title comes from Russian slang for snow-buried bodies that appear during the spring thaw. Platt is no tormented Raskolnikov. He wants the older girl, and if it means wrecking a sweet babushka’s life, well, too bad — she’s not hot anymore. But Platt is unprepared for just how sinister flipping real estate in Russia can get.
Zipp regularly reviews books for The Post and the Christian Science Monitor.