If I Gave the Award

With The Vanishing Futurist, I have now finished reading all the shortlisted books for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. So, it is time for my feature where I decide whether I think the judges got it right.

Sometimes, it’s easy for me to decide which book I thought was best. In this case, though, it’s pretty difficult as almost all the entries are really good. With the Walter Scott Prize, however, I think one aspect that should be looked at is how well the novel evoked the time and place, and that sometimes helps with my decision.

Let’s start with the winner, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I enjoyed this book, about two gay soldiers during the Civil War and the Indian Wars. I remember hearing criticism about the cross-dressing angle, which some readers thought wouldn’t be accepted back then. But I could buy this in communities that were solely male. My problem with the novel was that none of the characters seem fully developed, even though I liked them.

The weakest entry for that year, I thought, was The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. Set in postwar Switzerland and about a boy and his friendship with a Jewish violinist, it felt to me as if it was holding a pane of glass between me and the characters. Also, this novel seems pointless until the very end.

All the other books do more with the time and place than The Gustav Sonata, but perhaps, although I liked it very much, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift does less by virtue of the type of book it is. Even though this book, about how the events of one afternoon define the course of one young girl’s life, was one of my favorites, I’m not going to pick it just for that reason. It is a very short novel, and as such doesn’t have as much of the flavor of time and place, but it is an excellent book, extremely well written.

The Good People by Hannah Kent is based on a true crime and explores the deep superstition in a 19th century Irish village that leads to tragedy. This novel does a very good job of evoking time and place as well as building a sense of dread.

Similarly, The Vanishing Futurist evokes the heady times of idealistic young people after the Russian revolution as well as the dangers. Although the aims of the scientist in this novel may seem to be absurd, I don’t think they were an exaggeration of the types of things the Soviets were working on at the time. I felt it does a better job of depicting the time and place than several other novels about the aftermath of the revolution that I’ve read lately.

Notice I haven’t used the word “but” about either of the last two books, which is why my decision is so tough. These are both really enjoyable novels that handle their time and place well. And there is one more, Golden Hill by Frances Spufford. It is set in 18th century New York and evokes a city with mercantile origins and interests that still bears the influence of its Dutch founding. As far as plot is concerned, it is the most ambitious, about a young man who arrives there with a secret agenda. It is humorous and has a picaresque adventure story, so I decided to pick it, but nearly made this decision a three-way tie.

My Latest Haul

Last month I was busy writing to publishers to request review copies of their newest books. Just this week, I reaped the rewards of a few emails with shipments from some of my favorite British publishers! I can’t wait to dip into these. In fact, I already have, reading Dangerous Ages right away.

The books I received are as follows:

From the new British Library Women Writers series, I received My Husband Simon by Molly Panter-Downes and Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay.

The Furroughed Middlebrow series of Dean Street Press sent me Somewhere in England by Carola Oman and Beneath the Village Moon by Romilly Cavan.

From Persephone Press, I received One Woman’s Year by Stella Martin Currey.

Classics Club Spin #24

Apparently it’s time for another Classics Club Spin. For the spin, each Classics Club member posts a list of 20 books from their Classics Club list. On August 9, the club picks a number which determines the book the member will read by September 30.

So, here is my list! I find I only have about 20 books left to read!

  1. I Go by Land, I Go by Sea by P. L. Travers
  2. The Prince by Machievelli
  3. August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  4. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
  5. The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini
  6. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
  7. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
  8. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
  9. Joanna Godden by Sheila Kay-Smith
  10. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  11. Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden
  12. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  13. Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn
  14. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  15. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
  16. The Viscount de Bragelone by Alexandre Dumas
  17. The Winged Horse by Pamela Frankau
  18. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
  19. Edward II by Christopher Marlowe
  20. Evelina by Frances Burney

Have you read any of these? Which do you hope I’ll get?

If I Gave the Award

Now that I have reviewed Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, the last of the shortlist for the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, it’s time for my feature where I explore whether the judges got it right. The winner for that year was The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, so I think I’ll start with that one.

Myers’ novel was based on true events, charting the course of a group of 18th century coin clippers and counterfeiters who organize their remote Yorkshire valley around this activity. This novel is lyrically written and atmospheric, but I didn’t like its brutality or its faint favoritism toward the criminals.

It is much more evocative of its period, though, than Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, a disappointing novel by one of my favorite authors. Also a tale featuring gangsters, I didn’t feel that it very effectively evoked the time and place of the New York naval yards during World War II.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is Rachel Malik’s touching exploration of the mysterious life of her grandmother that is also set during and after World War II. I found it much more evocative in its setting on remote British farms but maybe a little slight compared to some of the other novels.

A certainly atmospheric novel that was cold and creepy was The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath. Poor Joan Grice is just mourning the loss of her husband when she makes a horrifying discovery about him. This novel is set just after World War II.

I liked Sugar Money by Jane Harris a lot. I especially liked its sprightly narration by Lucien, a 13-year-old slave who is sent with his brother on a dangerous mission. I felt it was much more realistic than many other novels I have read lately about the evils of slavery.

At times when I am doing this feature, I realize that I don’t like very many of the books. In this case, I really liked four of them, so my choice is simply based on which one I liked most. That one is Grace by Paul Lynch, about a young girl who must fend for herself during the Irish famine. It’s a harrowing story, told in beautiful, mesmerizing prose.

 

If I Gave the Award

Having reviewed 4321, the last of the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2017, I find it is now time for my feature where I explore whether I think the judges got it right.

Sometimes, I will choose the most experimental book as my favorite, which in this case is a toss-up between Paul Auster’s 4321 and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. Well, really, of those two, Lincoln in the Bardo, the winning book for 2017, is most experimental, so let’s look at it first. With the conceit of the dead being a sort of combination chorus and driver of the plot, and moreover that the preoccupations of the dead manifest themselves physically, I found myself first amused and then annoyed. Ultimately, I found it a little tiresome, so this is not the book I would have picked.

I found 4321 interesting in concept and the story more or less absorbing, but I also thought it was at least 100 pages too long. Everything about it was verbose, and really, what is that interesting about adolescent boys that you would have to explore in detail their every thought and obsession?

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is certainly timely, with its story of immigrants, but I felt it was too concept driven. It is not so much interested in the experience of immigrating itself than in the isolation after immigration. It also did not do much with its characters.

Ali Smith’s latest entry, Autumn, has Brexit as one of its central themes. It is also much harder to define. I found it interesting and intellectually challenging, but it did not stick with me like some of the other books.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, about a teenager who witnesses something she doesn’t understand, did stick with me more. I thought the novel was thought-provoking but also confusing and included a lot of things that didn’t pan out.

In case you didn’t figure it out, this time I’ve been going from my least favorite to my most favorite of the novels (well, not exactly, because I liked 4321 a little better than Exit West), so I end with what would have been my winner, Elmet by Fiona Mozley. It is deeply atmospheric and tells a compelling story. It may be the least experimental of the choices for 2017 (although History of Wolves isn’t really experimental either), but it resonated with me and has a distinctive narrative voice.