If I Gave the Award

With my review of The Deadman’s Pedal, I have finished reading the shortlisted books for the 2013 James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Therefore, it is time for my feature, where I decide whether the judges got it right. This year the shortlisted choices couldn’t be more different. They range from a very cerebral novel that traces a family history by imitating a classical bagpipe musical form to a less cerebral depiction of a deceptive personality to two novels about young people trying to find their way. Although all of these novels are about personal topics, I have ordered them in this paragraph from the most intellectually removed to the least.

The most cerebral of these novels is The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. This novel traces relationships between fathers and sons by using a classical form of bagpipe music as its organizing structure. It is a form dependent on repetition and embellishment, so although I found this novel high in concept, it was also a bit fascinating. Still, the repetitions proved a bit much for me.

The next most cerebral of the novels is Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. This is a novel about a poet who considers himself a fraud and spends his time arranging his face to look intelligent or thinking of profound things to say. The novel is funny at times, but I found myself getting lost in its logical circumlocutions and I strongly disliked the main character (not that that is necessarily bad).

At the beginning of the award-winning The Deadman’s Pedal, I found myself heartily disgusted by teenage boys and the love critics have for coming-of-age novels, those about boys, anyway. Then as the young Scottish protagonist went to work for the railroad, I got more interested until the book became mostly about adolescent sex.

That leaves me with The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, although I am not entire satisfied with my choice. I was absolutely rivetted by this story of a vivid young girl who has been failed by the system. However, I also believe that in some ways this book is slighter than some of the others. I will say, though, that of these four authors, Fagan is the only one whose other books I have looked for.

If I Gave the Award

With my review of No One Is Talking about This, I have finished reading the Booker Prize shortlist for 2021. So, it is time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. This one is going to be difficult for me because I didn’t absolutely admire any of the books on the shortlist.

Sometimes I start this feature with the book I liked least, but in this case, even that is difficult. It’s not that I disliked any of them, it’s more as if I felt detached from several of them and found things that I didn’t admire in others.

So, maybe I’ll have to choose by the book that made the most impression on me, and start with the least. I read No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood several months ago, although more recently than any of the others, yet when I went to post the review, I couldn’t remember a thing about it. I find from my notes that I didn’t relate to anything about the first half of the novel, the thoughts of a media influencer, but was touched by the second half, about a family member with a rare disease. Usually, if I am touched, I remember, but in this case I did not.

On the other hand, I vividly remember Bewilderment by Richard Powers, which is about a single father whose young son experiences fits of rage. It roams into science fiction with an experimental treatment that the desperate father signs his son up for, which sometimes seems a little like child abuse, but the novel has some beautiful moments. This was the novel I read first, and I remember it very well, although I was uncomfortable with it at times.

In terms of novels I felt detached from, there is The Fortune Men by Nafida Mohamed, about the last man sentenced to death in England, an innocent man who just happened to be Somali. This should have been powerful stuff, but I felt disconnected from it and the flashbacks to the protagonist’s life didn’t help.

I also felt detached from the characters in The Promise by Damon Galgut, although I usually like him. This novel was the winner that year, about a promise made to a dying family member, but I felt a lot of distance from its characters. I also thought it was interesting that the two female characters who were the most sympathetic were barely in the novel. It was all about the men.

I found A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam interesting in some respects, about a Sri Lankan man who goes to attend the funeral of his grandmother’s nurse. I liked the background about the recent war, even though it assumed a level of knowledge about it, but the novel was too contemplative for me. And even if that was not the case, Arudpragasam’s long, involved sentences and paragraphs and meandering prose were not something I enjoyed.

The book I was most engaged with was Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, a historical novel about the life of a woman aviator. However, as engaging as I found it, there was something about it that didn’t seem like prize material. I can’t be much more definite than that. For one thing, it was a split-time story, and the current-time story about the actress playing the role of the aviator in a movie wasn’t very interesting. When I judge it by what I remember, though, it does well, as I read it some time ago.

I think I’m going to have to go with Bewilderment. It wasn’t the best Richard Powers book I ever read (that was The Overstory), but it was compelling and sometimes beautiful, and Powers always seems so intelligent to me.

If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Little Life

With my review of The Year of the Runaways, I have finished reading the shortlisted books for the Booker Prize of 2015. So, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. My reactions to the shortlist of that year were really mixed. There were a couple books I intensely disliked, one that I thought was pointless, one that was interesting but didn’t really pull me in, and two that were excellent.

The winner for the year was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, about an assassination attempt on Bob Marley and its ramifications years later. I found it brutal and sexist and couldn’t even figure out which of many dead people the seven killings referred to. Though it was the first book in this shortlist that I read, I knew even then I wouldn’t be picking it as my favorite.

My next least favorite book was The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, about what happens between brothers after a prophecy. I found this book interesting because of its insight into Nigerian village culture and life, but I also found it extremely and graphically violent. Worse, I found Obioma’s writing immature, with unusual metaphors that often didn’t work well and his love for long, overblown sentences.

I didn’t see any point at all in Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, about U, a corporate anthropologist, whose job is to observe, connect, and deconstruct all known human activity. I’m sure it is meant ironically, but the novel seemed an exercise in Absurdism to me. It almost had a plot, but then it petered out at the end.

I liked The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota a little bit better. Written as if it was 19th century social realism, it is about several young Indian men who illegally immigrate to England with unrealistic expectations of their job prospects. It’s pretty grim, though, and it gets worse before it gets better. Its social realist style leaves you detached from its characters.

Cover for A Spool of Blue Thread

Now, we get to the good stuff. I just loved A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. About a family that gathers to decide what to do about their aging and faltering parents, I found it to be a lovely story about family stories and secrets, loving and forgiveness.

Finally, however, there is A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara. A beautifully written novel, it centers around four young men who were roommates in college. Slowly, we learn the secrets of one mysterious character, Jude, around whom everything seems to center. This was a powerful and deeply touching novel.

So, I pick A Little Life, with strong recommendations for A Spool of Blue Thread.

If I Gave the Award

Having posted my review of the last shortlisted book for the 2018 James Tait Black Fiction Prize, I think it’s time for my feature where I discuss whether the judges got it right. The four entries for this year are disparate and for each of them, I have both positive and negative reactions. In fact, this is so much the case that I hardly know which book to start with or to pick. I’ll just work my way toward the winner.

I guess I’ll start with First Love by Gwendolyn Riley, because I’m still not sure what Riley meant by the title. The novel depicts the main character’s two abusive relationships, one with her older, ill husband and the other with her first boyfriend. Although these depictions are realistic, the theme doesn’t give the reader much to like.

American War by Omar Al Akkad was not my genre, being a dystopian novel about the results of climate change and about how young people are radicalized for war. However, I found it completely engrossing, despite disliking its themes.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru is about a relationship between two young men in college who form a friendship and a company based on a mutual fascination with sound. However, it turns out that that neither the narrator nor the reader understands what is going on, and the novel gradually moves from complete realism to having a strong supernatural bent. Although this novel flagged for me at times, its ending was so unexpected that Kunzru was the only author of these four from whom I wanted to look for more to read. (Although this reminds me that I have not yet done that.)

The winner of the award that year was Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams. I can understand the judges’ choice, because this collection is so playful with language. Still, I only had a strong reaction to a couple of the stories and felt that its playfulness was beyond me at times. Also, I often struggle with short fiction.

So, which book did I think should get the award? I had the biggest reaction to White Tears, but didn’t think I should give the honor to a book that flagged for me at times. American War was the only one I called engrossing, but it was also really not the kind of thing I like to read. Attrib. and Other Stories was way above my head at times, but at other times it was funny and endearing. I think for this shortlist, I’ll recommend that, if you want to read one, pick the one that sounds most interesting to you. That’s right. I am totally copping out.

If I Gave the Award

Having just reviewed the final shortlisted novel for the 2010 James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Most of the shortlist left me unsatisfied for this year, but it contains two wonderful books.

The novel I found least interesting was Strangers by Anita Brookner. The story of a lonely man and his unsatisfying relationships, I found it slow moving and repetitive, although it was well written.

I have loved some of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels and applaud him for seeming to try different things, but I found his collection of short stories about music and fame, Nocturnes, unsatisfying. I also found some of the situations frankly unbelievable.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is probably the most unusual of the entries. It is a boldly illustrated story about a boy genius and his trip to the Smithsonian to accept a fellowship. I found some of the aspects of the story unlikely, but my biggest problem with it was the narrator’s voice. There was no time that the voice sounded like a 12-year-old boy, genius or not.

Cover for Wolf Hall

The winner of the prize that year was The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. I can understand why it won, because it is an ambitious novel that tries to paint a portrait of Victorian society against the microcosm of one family’s experience. It is also completely absorbing, so I think it deserves the award.

However, the other shortlisted book was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a fascinating novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell and one of my favorite novels of all time. I’m not saying that the judges got it wrong this time, but the choice between these two would be difficult for me. I’m guessing The Children’s Book won because of its larger scope.

If I Gave the Award

Having just posted the review for the last of the shortlisted books for the 2020 James Tait Black Award, I find it is time for my feature, where I decide if the judges got it right. This time it’s going to be a hard one, for none of the nominated books struck much of a chord with me. Usually, I judge the books by how I reacted to them, as most people would do, I think.

Often, I start with the book I liked least, but I am not even sure which one that is. So, I guess I’ll start with the winner, Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. This book is by far the most experimental of the four shortlisted books, which I’m guessing is why it’s the winner. It is mostly one 1000-page sentence—except for short passages of regular narrative—and it breaks just about every rule of fiction I can think of. I felt that Ellman got details wrong for her character, a middle-aged American Midwestern housewife. She seemed too old and too British. The novel was compelling enough in an odd way for me to finish (that is, I kept wondering why I was still reading it), but didn’t have much of a payoff.

A lot of people are calling linked short stories novels these days. The James Tait Black award is for fiction, but almost every entry I have read so far has been a novel or a novel of linked stories, so Sudden Traveler by Sarah Hall is an anomaly. That is, it is definitely a collection of short stories rather than linked stories making a novel. Some of these stories are slice of life and some quite fantastical. Although I liked another book I read by Hall, I am not generally so comfortable with short fiction (although I like the linked story novels) or with the fantastic, and I found some of the stories perplexing. If this book had any overarching theme, I guess it might be girl power.

Although I liked Girl by Edna O’Brien, it is definitely the least experimental of all the entries. It is a very short, straightforwardly told story about a young Nigerian girl who is kidnapped and the results of that even after she is returned to her family. O’Brien’s writing is beautiful and the novel is affecting.

I’m ending with Travelers by Helon Habila, a novel of linked short stories about the plight of African refugees in Europe. Does that mean I liked it best? I’m not even sure. If I had to pick a winner, I guess it would be either Girl or Travelers. I had more of a response to Girl but think it is slighter than Travelers. Do I think the judges got it right this time? If they are awarding for experimentalism, maybe, but I’m not even sure whether Ducks, Newburyport deserves all the accolades it got. I think that sometimes reviewers in any genre of media get excited because something is different, and this may be a case of that.

If I Gave the Award

I’ve now reviewed all the shortlisted books for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, so it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. In this case, I can’t begin with the book I disliked most, because I liked all of them. In fact, that’s the difficulty, to choose between these worthy candidates.

I very recently reviewed The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte, about the German occupation of Tolstoy’s estate during World War II. I enjoyed this novel but didn’t like the letters that skipped ahead of the plot and felt the novel was somehow slight.

I also enjoyed The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, which explored the ways that gender influenced the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and looked at the women who helped create the dictionary. I found the novel touching and interesting, although a few of the plot points were predictable.

The freshest book in my memory of is A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville. I found this novel about how a woman learns how to work within a difficult marriage and helps found the sheep industry in Australia vivid and deeply interesting. Of course, the husband gets all the credit.

One of my favorite writers is Maggie O’Farrell. Her novel Hamnet is about the death of William Shakespeare’s and Anne Hathaway’s son and its influence on the writing of Hamlet. I found it to be deft and sensitive, although at first I wasn’t comfortable with how much O’Farrell was making up about Hathaway.

But speaking of favorite authors, along with many people, I was waiting for the last entry in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. That book, The Mirror and the Light, follows Cromwell’s life as he serves Henry VIII and tries to keep him from his worst excesses. It begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn and of course, ends with his own death. It had me in tears, which is my best gauge of how much I enjoy a book. This novel was the winner of the award for 2021, and I think the judges got it right.

If I Gave the Award

Since I have posted my last review of the shortlisted books for the Booker Prize of 2019, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. The nominees for that year include a dystopian novel, several novels that experiment in form and two that experiment in narrative style, and one fantasy/satire.

I often start this post with the books I liked least, but in this case, I have a little problem with that, and that is to decide which ones I disliked the least. In fact, on the list for this year, there are none that I thought were entirely successful and several that I actively disliked.

So, I’ll start with the one that is freshest in my mind, Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. This fantasy/satire about an elderly man on a road trip (that doesn’t get anywhere) with his imaginary son was a DNF for me. I felt Rushdie constantly winking at me as he proceeded with his ponderous humor that wasn’t funny at all.

The other novel I disliked intensely was An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obiama. I thought this novel, about a man who will supposedly do anything for love, was riddled with sexism and outright hatred of women. Its hints of Igbo culture are interesting, but also slowed down the forward impetus of the novel.

Now, we get to the novels that I thought were ambitious but not quite successful. Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World tackles violence toward women in an unusual way, but I found its change in tone to be jarring. In addition, the concept of the first part of the novel, which represents the 10 minutes and 38 seconds of brain activity in a dying person in 200 pages (short period of time, long time of reading), just didn’t work for me.

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman was experimental by anyone’s reckoning. This novel, which is basically one 1000-page sentence (except for a few intervals that are written normally) broke every rule about writing I can think of. It was oddly compelling, enough to make me finish, but I’m not sure it provided much payoff for all the effort.

I didn’t actually say this in my review of The Testaments, but I really felt it was a bit of a sell-out by Margaret Atwood, only written to satisfy the fans of The Handmaid’s Tale television series. I felt it very conveniently wrapped things up and was far less of a landmark book than her original novel. It was also the most traditionally written book of the shortlisted novels for 2019. However, it was Atwood, so it was compelling reading.

That brings us to Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, a cowinner of the award with The Testaments. This novel of linked short stories about women is also experimental in form, having hardly any periods. I called it a semi-successful experiment in form and writing style, but it did include some powerful stories. In a year that was hard to pick favorites, I guess this would be my pick. Since this novel was a cowinner of the award, I guess that makes the judges half right.

If I Gave the Award

Cover for Bring Up the Bodies

Now that I have reviewed the last shortlisted book for the 2012 Booker Prize, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. This shortlist is another mixed bag of genres, two historical, two set in the 1970’s, and two contemporary. One is experimental enough to render it almost incomprehensible while another sometimes reads as if pages were taken from a textbook.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I liked least. My least favorite of the nominees was Umbrella by Will Self. With an idea that should have been interesting, based as it is on Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, this novel is so concerned with its devices that it is very difficult to read. It shifts point of view in mid-sentence, sometimes in mid-word, and uses stream-of-consciousness confusingly.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil is set in late 1970’s or early 80’s Bombay, about a young man exploring the city’s opium dens and brothels. Although I found some of the characters interesting, I was not interested in the overall subject matter, and when the novel became philosophical, it read as if it came out of a textbook.

My main objection to Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is that I found the situation unbelievable. When vacationers find a disturbed girl occupying their vacation house, they invite her to stay even though she is clearly a fangirl of the poet husband. The entire atmosphere of the novel is foreboding, and the placement in time of an initial scene is confusing.

Cover for The Garden of Evening Mists

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore is another menacing novel, about a sad, gray man who goes on a hiking trip out of nostalgia for happy times with his father. He unwittingly gets into a situation between a woman and her jealous husband. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, I found this novel oddly compelling.

I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng about post-World War II Malaya. It immersed me in the story of a Malayan judge suffering from aphasia who is revisiting her memories.

That leaves the winner of that year’s prize, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantell. This novel was the second installment of Mantell’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, dealing with Anne Boleyn’s frantic attempts to hold onto her throne and her life. It is an absolutely enthralling story of Tudor politics and intrigue. So, this time, yes, the judges got it right.

If I Gave the Award

Having reviewed the last book from the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction shortlist, it’s now time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Frankly, 2020 was an odd year, with several books that, while interesting, really didn’t do it for me. In fact, quite a few of them cultivated distance between the reader and the work.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I liked least. One is The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. This novel covers the beginning of the fight for Arab nationalism and the First World War, so it should have been interesting. However, Hammad writes it from the point of view of a man who distances himself from the action by the persona he invents for himself.

Another distancing book was The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, which was the winner for 2020. It is about the relationship between the artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo. It is slow moving and mostly a character study about a self-absorbed man who seemed to live his life in the interior of his own mind. I felt that although Jo was depicted as jealous and demanding, she was upset about something understandable—her career coming so much secondary to his and in fact his disdain of her work.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek is a little more experimental than the other nominees. It is about a 14th century journey from the Cotswolds to Calais, and it is written only in words in use at the time. It also reflects, in tone and plot, its medieval inspirations. However, Meek doesn’t do much with his characters, so I had difficulty becoming involved in the novel.

The Redeemed by Tim Pears was the third book in his West Country Trilogy, and it is set during the last years and the aftermath of World War I about a man who has to make his own way after becoming homeless as a boy. Having spent three books with these characters, I found the conclusion of the trilogy anti-climactic. I actually thought the first book was best.

Joseph O’Connor has written a novel about 30 years in the life of Bram Stoker, with Shadowplay. I found this novel involving and interesting. It’s about Stoker’s work with the Lyceum Theatre and his relationship with two famous actors, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. It even has just a bit of a supernatural influence.

Although it took me a while to get into A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland, I found it absolutely heart-rending by the end. It is based on the life of a native Anglican missionary to South Africa, about a man whose upbringing sets him apart from his own people as well as his English white patrons. This novel is my choice for the 2020 award.