Ahead of the announcement of this year's Orange prize winner, the Channel 4 News team gives its verdict on the wide-ranging and eminent shortlist.
From the Amazonian jungle to war-torn Berlin, the 2012 Orange prize shortlist takes in a veritable range of novels from well-established and first-time authors, as well as a former Booker prize winner.
The fact that they are all women unites these writers - the Orange prize was set up in 1996 to celebrate and promote fiction by women - and the annual prize giving will no doubt be accompanied by the debate about whether or not the world needs a prize for women, and the usual pros and cons of positive discrimination.
What is not up for debate, however, is that the Orange prize has unearthed some literary triumphs in its history, and is one of the most commercially successful. The Orange seal of approval can also result in an average increase of between 100,000 and 150,000 book sales.
The bookies' favourite for this year is Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies at 2/1, followed by 7/2 for Booker-nominated Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.
But the Channel 4 News book club seems at odds with the bookies, putting Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles as joint favourite (along with Ann Patchett's sixth book State of Wonder), while William Hill puts the tale from ancient Greece in final place at 8/1.
Is that a reflection of the Channel 4 News team's leftfield taste? Or the sign of a stellar shortlist with competing potential winners? Who knows. But we will find out on Wednesday evening, when the winning book and author are announced.
Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles
The Iliad - the story of the siege of Troy - is the greatest of all war stories, writes Mark Greaves. It still inspires writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers. At its centre is Achilles, born of man and god, the finest warrior in the entire classical pantheon.
The Song of Achilles is Madeline Miller's excellent re-working of Homer's original. Every episode in the Iliad is there - Helen's elopement with Paris, the siege of Troy, Agamemnon's insult to Achilles, Achilles' fight to the death with Hector - but all told through the eyes of Patroclus, Achilles' lover.
Miller's prose is elegant and pitch-perfect. The characters' speech never descends into mock-historical pomposity, and the gods - absolutely integral to Homer’s original – move in and out of this 21st century re-telling with complete naturalness. Recommended.
Esi Edugyan: Half Blood Blues
Following the lives of three non-white musicians, the novel taps into material largely ignored by mainstream literature – the experience of black people under the Nazis, writes Sonia Rothwell. Hieronymous (Hiero), Sid (the narrator) and Chip are members of a legendary jazz band, trying to make it at a time when their music is being repressed by the regime.
The novel opens in Paris with mixed-race German Hiero trying to escape to Switzerland while the band tries to record its breakthrough single. After an ill-advised after-hours walk into town in pursuit of milk(!) Hiero is arrested by Nazi soldiers and taken away to certain death it seems.
The rest of the novel is about betrayal, identity and racial experience. For me, the phonetically transcribed dialogue was a major barrier to enjoyment of the story. The dialogue seemed artificial and implausible – at one point Sid compares a building to a "block of cheddar". Half Blood Blues hit the wrong notes for me.
Ann Patchett: State of Wonder
Pharmacologist Marina Singh is the unassuming heroine of Ann Patchett's latest novel, who reluctantly ends up in the Amazonian jungle assisting the formidable Dr Annick Swenson, writes Meabh Ritchie.
The elderly scientist has discovered a tribe whose women never go through a menopause, and are able to bear children until they die. Dr Singh works for an American drug company hoping to bottle the formula that would make western dreams of unlimited fertility a reality.
This fascinating central plot pulls on the main characters' own feelings towards motherhood and fertility and Patchett convincingly portrays the inner emotional life of Dr Singh, which is often at odds to her controlled exterior.
Contrasting the still life of lab coats and data in Dr Singh's home in suburban Minnesota, with the overwhelming extremities of the Amazonian tropics, this philosophical tale is also a gripping page turner that leaves the reader guessing to the final pages.
"What's often overlooked is that the Orange prize is also the only prize which celebrates writing from throughout the world rather than just the Commonwealth or the UK and Ireland," writes Culture Editor Matthew Cain. "And what's interesting on this front is that the winners from the last three years have all been American – and only one writer on this year's shortlist is British. Four of the remaining five are from North America."
Read more from Matt Cain
Anne Enright: The Forgotten Waltz
The Forgotten Waltz is essentially a tale of an adulterous affair between Dubliner Gina Moynihan and Sean, her lover - but as with all offerings from this established Irish author, it is so much more, writes Meabh Ritchie.
As Gina reflects on the decline of her marriage and the blossoming of the affair, darting back in time from the present day, Enright reveals how circumstance as much as passion solidified the affair which eventually results in the unexpected mundanity of daily life.
What sets this book apart is that Enright never shies away from the stark truth behind Gina's mixed emotions - no matter how shameful or unworthy they may be - and her feelings towards Sean's daughter in particular are revealed with startling honesty.
The epic boom and bust of the Irish financial crisis is also a constant presence, and the characters' longing for bigger, better houses, followed by the melancholic stagnation of the property market acts as a metaphor for the unrealistic expectations of human nature.
Georgina Harding: Painter of Silence
The discovery of a frail, fragile man on the steps of a Romanian hospital in the early 1950s leaves medical staff confused, writes Katie Hunter.
Who is he? Where did he come from? What has happened to him? Why won't he speak?
One nurse, Safta, knows many of the answers for she and Augustin - who is deaf and mute - grew up together. It is no coincidence that he has ended up in her hospital.
The tale of their shared childhood emerges as the novel weaves between past and present: from an idyllic early life in Poiana before they were separated, through the horrors of World War II to the somewhat depressing post-war city of Iasi.
Augustin, who cannot speak, uses his artistic talent to slowly reveal the reasons he has come to find Safta.
This sensitive, subtle novel is a pleasure to read and deserves its place on the Orange Prize shortlist.
Cynthia Ozick: Foreign Bodies
Inspired by Henry James's The Ambassadors, Cynthia Ozick’s sixth literary offering tells the story Bea Nightingale, a middle aged teacher working in an impoverished borough of 1950s New York, who is sent to Paris by her estranged brother, Marvin, to recover a nephew whom she has never met writes Alix O'Neil.
Still coming to terms with the end of her brief marriage years ago to Leo, now a successful composer living in California, Bea agrees to the boorish Marvin’s demands and travels to Europe to retrieve Julian.
"A raw and entitled boy" with artistic delusions, her nephew has spent three years in the French capital attempting, and failing, to keep up with the city’s literary set.
Bea finds Julian squatting in an American doctor's apartment with his Romanian wife, the disfigured Lili – a victim of the Second World War, struggling to cope with the loss of her first husband and son – and his younger sister Iris.
Both siblings refuse to return to their overbearing father and their mother Margaret, who, unable to live with her husband, has been institutionalised.
Exploring the themes of love, neglect and anti-semitism, among others, Foreign Bodies is a beautifully written and worthy read.