If I Gave the Award

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsHaving posted my last review of the shortlisted books for the 2013 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize, it is time for my feature in which I give my opinion of the books on the shortlist. I have to say that 2013 is another difficult year with several excellent historical novels on the list.

Let’s begin with the ones I didn’t like as well. Although The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Kenneally tells an interesting story about nurses in World War I, it keeps such a distance from its characters that you lose some interest in what happens to them. Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain accomplishes the same thing with its semi-comic, mocking tone.

I became more involved in Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. An important consideration for this prize is how fully realized the period and place seem to be, and in this novel that goal was accomplished. It was also accomplished in The Streets by Anthony Quinn. These were both good, solid, and interesting historical novels.

Cover for Bring Up the BodiesBy far the two best novels, though, were the winning book, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. They both created an entrancing world for their characters and were beautifully written. When I sat down to write this feature, my intention was to choose The Garden of Evening Mists, probably because I had read it more recently. I posted my review of that book a few months ago and of Bring Up the Bodies way back in 2012. However, rereading my original review of that book made me remember how much I was impressed by it. Therefore, I find myself unable to choose between these two books. For this year, with quite a few good books to chose from on the list, I find that the most impressive were The Garden of Evening Mists and Bring Up the Bodies.

If I Gave the Award

Cover for The Long SongHaving finally reviewed the last book on the shortlist for the 2011 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, it is time to write this recurring feature, where I give my opinion about which book I feel deserved the award.

This was a year with several entries that were unusual and one that I felt was not actually a very good novel. Let’s start with that one, To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams. This novel about a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander II was presented wrapped around an unlikely and uninteresting love story. I was never sure whether I was supposed to feel sympathy for the plotters or not. I didn’t.

The winner for that year was The Long Song by Andrea Levy. Although this is an interesting novel about the last days of slavery in Jamaica, I felt it was somewhat distancing from its characters. However, this sad story is told with humor and lightness.

Heartstone by C. J. Sansome is an entry in his Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England. Although this series is outstanding for its thorough immersion in the Tudor world, this novel was impeded in its effectiveness, I thought, by the subplot involving Ellen Fettiplace.

Cover for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De ZoetC by Thomas McCarthy is an unusual story of the life of a young man, set in the early 20th century and ending during World War I. Again, this novel, which wanders about among many different pursuits of its main character, was interesting but seemed detached from its subject, as was I.

One of the most beautifully written entries for that year is Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. This is the story of the poet John Millington Synge and Molly Allgood. Characterization is more important in this novel than the historical setting, which I think is vital for a novel considered for an award for historical fiction.

That leaves one of my favorite books of all time, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. This novel is set in 18th century Nagasaki, Japan, during the first opening of Japan to the West. Jacob de Zoet becomes one of the first Europeans to be allowed to set foot off the island called Dejima where all the Europeans are restricted to live. This novel was full of the flavor and customs of 18th century Japan as well as a good story about corruption in the Dutch East India Company.

Although several of the books on this year’s list are worthy of the award, my personal choice is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

If I Gave the Award

Cover for HarvestWhen I began my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project late last year, I had, just coincidentally, already read three of the four shortlisted books for 2014. Having finally posted my review for the fourth, it is time for my feature where I give my opinion about which book I would have voted for.

The year 2014 has some strong entries, the weakest of which, in my opinion, is The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Although it skillfully depicts two vibrant cultures in the 1970’s, to me there seemed to be something about the main character that was not convincing, and the relationship that the novel pinned its major events on was unexplored.

Cover for All the Birds, SingingI don’t think very many writers can beat Kent Haruf as a prose stylist and was happy to see his Benediction on the list. I also very much enjoyed the winning book, Harvest, by Jim Crace. It was dark and powerful. I strongly recommend both of them.

So, my opinion is simply based on the feeling that All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld made the biggest impression on me. Although I read it long ago, in the fall of 2014 (as I did Harvest), it is the one that sticks with me the most and that I find the most haunting. So, All the Birds, Singing is my pick for 2014.