If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Place Called WinterAs I just reviewed End Games in Bordeaux, the final shortlisted book for 2016 that I read for my Walter Scott Fiction Prize project, it is time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Since Simon Mawer’s Tightrope was the winner, I’m guessing anyone that follows my blog will know that I don’t think they did.

The Walter Scott Prize judges have done it again by choosing both a sequel and the fourth in a series for their shortlist. I don’t know what it is with this prize. They seem to love books that don’t stand very well alone. Tightrope is the sequel, about Marian Sutro, an agent during World War II who is considered a perfect choice to continue as an agent during the Cold War. In this book, at least, Sutro is an unknowable quantity, and I also thought she was an adolescent male’s dream of the perfect woman. I also wasn’t thrilled to revisit Mawer’s fascination with the female labia. I will not be willingly reading anymore Mawer.

The fourth book of the series was End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie, which introduced so many unexplained characters and provided so little background in its terse little chunks that I could hardly understand what was going on. And, I think for this prize, another important consideration is how well the book handles the historical background. Is there a real feel for the time and place? I didn’t think so for either book, although both do a good job of portraying the paranoia of their respective times.

Nineteenth century Australia was better portrayed in Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. This novel was an occasionally harrowing picture of a hapless family, appalled by their rustic surroundings. However, I found its plaintive tone a bit hard to take at times.

I liked A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale better, although it took a long time to get the main character to 19th century Saskatchewan, where it was most interesting. I most liked finding out about the details of early homesteading and the treatment of mental illness.

Cover for Mrs. EngelsWilliam Boyd takes a more global view in his novels. His most recent ones cover large swaths of time and lots of historical events. That includes Sweet Caress, a novel about the life of a woman photographer, beginning in 1908 and ending in 1975. I found this novel so convincing in one way (it might have been the photographs) that I kept googling the main character, thinking this was a work of biographical fiction. She’s fictional, but I was not always sure I was hearing a female voice.

This decision was difficult, because no one book stands out above the others, although I definitely like some more than others. But I finally selected Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea for its lively narrative voice, its humor, and its look into the private lives of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeI just reviewed The Sport of Kings, which was the last book I read of the shortlisted books for the 2017 James Tait Black Fiction Prize. This means that it’s time for my regular feature, where I give my opinion of whether the judges got it right.

If you were paying attention to my last review, you probably already know that The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan doesn’t get my vote. I found it overblown and rambling, as well as depicting a bunch of detestable characters. Of course, I’m not a big fan of Southern Gothic.

Similarly, although I liked What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell better, I wasn’t that interested in the all too familiar story of a man falling in love with a prostitute nor in the explicit sexuality. The section about the narrator’s relationship with his father was more interesting.

Cover for The Lesser BohemiansNow, let’s get to the good stuff. I thought that A Country Road, A Tree was a fascinating biographical depiction of the life of Samuel Beckett during World War II. It wasn’t very venturesome in other respects, though.

That’s why, I’m guessing, the winner for 2017 was Eimer McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. And I have to say, although I thought that A Country Road, A Tree was a great novel, I enjoyed the quirky, inventive narrative style of The Lesser Bohemians. It’s a toss-up for me, so we’ll say the James Tait Black people got it right.

 

 

If I Gave the Award

Cover for Do Not Say We Have NothingHaving posted my review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty, I see it is time for my feature where I give my opinion of the winners for a specific award. The Sellout was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. It was the winner that year. If you read my review, you know that I disliked this book intensely because of its style, which reminded me of a long stand-up comedy routine, and also because of its over-the-top plot. In fact, I did not finish reading it. So, obviously, I would not have picked it for the award.

Another book that did not impress me was All That Man Is by David Szalay. It depicts in barely related short stories (why is it called a novel when nothing but the theme overlaps from story to story?) a series of incidents featuring despicable male characters who at best do nothing and at worst are very bad indeed.

Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, on the other hand, is a portrait of a despicable woman. Although I thought this novel presented a masterful characterization, it was not my favorite.

Cover for His Bloody ProjectI liked Hot Milk by Deborah Levy more, but I thought some of its events were unlikely. And it was confusing at times, written in an almost hallucinogenic style.

Although I occasionally found its style irritating, since it has a fairy tale-like quality to it, I found Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien heart-rending. In addition, it informed me about events I knew nothing about.

My selection for the winner, however, would have been His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I found it absolutely fascinating as it followed a crime as well as depicting the lives of crofters in the 19th century.

 

 

If I Gave the Award

Cover for Jamrach's MenagerieYesterday, I posted my review of the last of the 2011 shortlisted books for the Man Booker Prize, so it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. The 2011 shortlist offers a lot to like, although I found a bit to dislike in it, too.

It’s easy for me to dismiss one of the books. I did not like Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, an ironic, superviolent Western, at all.

I was a little more interested in Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s dual time-frame story about how jealousy affects an American blues band hiding in Nazi-occupied Germany and Paris. However, I didn’t really like most of the characters and I wasn’t in love with the vernacular used to narrate the novel, which I believed was probably not historically accurate.

Snowdrops by A. D. Miller paints a chilling picture of life in post-Cold War Russia. I felt this was an engaging thriller and character study with a narrator made unreliable by his willful ignorance.

I was enchanted by the narrator of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, a naive 11-year-old boy from Ghana, and the novel invoked in me a growing dread. However, I felt that the role of the pigeon didn’t really work.

Cover for The Sense of an EndingJamrach’s Menagerie just plain tells a fascinating story, about a 19th century boy who is rescued from poverty by a menagerie owner and who sails off on a mission to find a dragon. This novel features wonderful storytelling.

The winning novel was Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. Barnes is a master of the unreliable narrator, and this novel is no exception. Through reading the diary of a friend who committed suicide, the narrator learns that everything he remembers about the key relationships in his life is wrong.

Although this time it was a tough decision, I have to agree with the judges. Barnes’s book is short but psychologically fascinating and complex. I would also pose that it is the novel that is the most literary of the shortlisted books. I strongly recommend some of the other books, however, particularly Jamrach’s Menagerie.

 

If I Gave the Award

Cover for We Are Not OurselvesSince I just reviewed Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, the last of the shortlisted novels for the 2015 James Tait Black Fiction Prize, it is time for my feature, where I give my opinion about whether they got it right or not. The 2015 list is a difficult one, because I didn’t love any of the shortlisted novels, but I thought all of them were excellent in different ways.

I read We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas the longest ago, in the same year that it was published. I recollect that, while I stayed interested in the novel, it was a long time before I was very vested in this story about a family coping with Alzheimer’s.

Fourth of July Creek was another novel with a more straightforward narrative. It focuses on people on the fringes of society in Montana. It is interesting and involving and ultimately touching as it explores the stresses upon an already fanatical man being pressured by the government.

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey uses a more inventive approach to narrative, it being a long love/hate letter from a woman to her former best friend. While it recounts the reasons for the destruction of their friendship, it reveals how the woman yearns to see her friend again.

Cover for Dear ThiefAlso a novel about a friendship and the winning entry, In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman is the most ambitious of the novels and also the one least likely to appeal to some readers. It is a tour de force in narration, consisting mostly of a long series of narratives by one character on a wide variety of subjects. It is the most thought-provoking of the shortlisted books and the most difficult.

I can understand why the judges chose In the Light of What We Know, but as I think about it, I have to choose the book that I connected with most. Although I enjoyed the winning novel, I also was just on the edge of irritation with it as I read it. So, for its slightly inventive approach and the connection I felt to the material, I am picking Dear Thief with a strong nod to Fourth of July Creek.

 

If I Gave the Award

Cover for Parrot and OlivierHaving finally posted my review of The Finkler Question, I see that it is time again for my feature “If I Gave the Award,” in which I evaluate the shortlist I have just read and say which book I think deserves the award.

The winning book for the 2010 Man Booker Prize was Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, but if you read my review on Tuesday, you’ll know I’m not going to pick that one. I found most of the characters unbelievable, the humor not funny, the tone irritating, and the preoccupations of the characters kind of ridiculous. In fact, it was my least favorite of the shortlisted books.

I felt too much distance from the action and characters of C, by Tom McCarthy, to pick it. Similarly, I felt that the narrative style of The Long Song by Andrea Levy distances the reader from its characters.

Room by Emma Donoghue was a compelling read, so I can’t complain that I felt distanced by it. However, I don’t think it is in the same league as the other books. It employs an imaginative approach by narrating a difficult situation from the point of view of an innocent boy, but this approach is not always convincing, and it is essentially just a thriller. I almost feel that its selection on the short list was an effort to attract more readers to the prize by selecting a popular novel.

Cover for In a Strange RoomIt has been a very long time since I read Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, but I still have fond memories of its sly humor. It is my second favorite of the nominated books.

So, we get to the novel that I think should have won the award, In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut. This book is not only beautifully written, but it is affecting and insightful in the behavior of its characters. Although it purposefully keeps some distance from the readers at times, I found it powerful and touching.

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.