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.

If I Gave the Award

Since I posted my review of the last book from the 2018 shortlist of the Booker Prize on Tuesday, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. It’s a hard decision this time, because there are so many good books on the list. Actually, they are all good. I just connected better with some than others.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I enjoyed least. I think I just didn’t connect with The Long Take by Robin Robertson. At least partially, that’s because it is a poem, but it is also almost plotless and very gritty. It is beautifully written, though, about homeless World War II veterans and the selling out of L. A.

Another gritty entry is The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. I found this novel more gripping, and it is about an important subject—the lack of justice in our justice system. However, it seems I am not really a Kushner fan.

To make my decision harder, I enjoyed all of the other four entries. Two of them were on my Best Books of the Year list two years ago, and another one—most likely both of the others—will be on the one for this year.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan is really an adventure story set in the 1900’s. Washington is a slave on a Barbados plantation who flees with Titch, his master’s brother, after the death of his master’s cousin. Having left everything he knows, he is then abandoned in Canada by Titch. I liked the sense of not knowing what was going to happen next.

I enjoyed Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, too. It’s a mysterious rendering of the Oedipus myth set in the fascinating world of the people who live on Britain’s canal system. I found it atmospheric and interesting.

This year, The Overstory by Richard Powers blew me away, and it will be on my best books list for the year. Taking on the metaphor of a tree for its structure, starting with the roots, it is about the importance of trees. That may not sound very interesting, but Powers starts with a group of people who are all interested in trees in some way and begins to entwine their fates as he works his way up the trunk of his story. Although the ending was a little too abstract, I was fascinated by this book.

However, I’m going to pick Milkman by Anna Burns, which was also that year’s winner. I just loved it. It is a dazzling, exuberant novel about an Irish girl in 1970’s Belfast who is being stalked by a man she calls a “renouncer-of-the-state.” Much of its charm lives in the distinctive voice of the narrator. The judges got it right with this one.

If I Gave the Award

Having just posted my review of the last book on the shortlist for the 2016 James Tait Black fiction prize, I am now posting my feature wherein I examine whether I think the judges got it right. In this case, of the four nominees, I liked two and disliked two.

I’ll start with the winner of that year’s prize, You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits. I felt that it handled its themes of racism and gentrification poorly and employed constructs of magazine writing that don’t really work in fiction. It also seemed bogged down by lots of ineffective and inconclusive conversations between characters and by an ineffectual main character.

The other book I didn’t really enjoy that much was Beatlebone by Kevin Barry, a fantasy about John Lennon visiting Western Ireland. Not much happens in this book, and what does happen, I didn’t find interesting. Although the novel is very well written, I thought it seemed like fanboy fiction.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July tickled my funny bone, with its plethora of eccentric characters. I found this novel bizarre but touching.

I would have given the prize to The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. It’s about the isolation of an emotionally detached woman and events that allow her to open the door to the people in her life. I found it thoughtful and vital.

If I Gave the Award

Now that I’ve finished reading the shortlist for the 2019 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize, it’s time for my feature where I examine whether I think the judges got it right. This time, I’m starting with the book I liked the least.

After the Party by Cressida Connolly is about Fascists in World War II England. I was confused about the message of this novel and found all the characters unsympathetic and some downright disgusting.

Although I did not actively dislike any of the other entrants, I was not that enthralled with the winner of the prize, The Long Take by Robin Robertson. As it was written in poetic form, it is not as accessible as the others, and it is mainly atmospheric. However, it is about an interesting subject and period, homeless ex-soldiers after World War II and the selling out of Los Angeles.

I liked four of the novels about equally well for different reasons. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is essentially an adventure novel about a deserting officer during the Napoleonic Wars. It is about redemption and self-forgiveness.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is also set during World War II, about two teenagers deserted by their parents whose lives turn chaotic and dangerous.

I admired the zippy energy of A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey. It starts out seemingly being an adventure and love story and ends up being about the treatment of Aboriginal people in 1950’s Australia.

I think I’m going with The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey, a Medieval tale about a drowned man that reveals its secrets slowly as it moves backward in time. I liked the structure of the book as well as the atmosphere.

If I Gave the Award

Cover for Solace

Having posted my review of There but for the, I find that I’ve reviewed all of the shortlisted books for the 2012 James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Therefore, it is time for my feature where I explore whether I think that judges got it right.

Occasionally I don’t know which book to start with, but in this case it’s a pretty easy choice. I’ll start with the winner, You & Me by Padgett Powell. Sometimes, I think that critics and judges get so tired of the same old thing that they like books just because they’re different. This may be a classic example. It’s supposed to be a take-off on Waiting for Godot, as if Waiting for Godot needed one. I found it utterly unfunny and boring and thought it was the worst book in the bunch.

There but for the by Ali Smith was much better, but I found it annoying at times. A series of linked stories that are sometimes touching, the novel also featured some verbal gymnastics that I found tiring after a while, especially in the last section.

Cover for Snowdrops

Now, we come to Solace by Brenda McKeon, about the relationship between a man and his son in rural Ireland. I am torn between this one and the next shortlisted book. I found Solace interesting and insightful, also touching.

I think I’m going for Snowdrops by A. D. Miller as my choice. This novel is about the horrible results of a young British lawyer’s infatuation with a Russian girl and his resulting willful blindness during the wild 2000’s in Russia. It is a slowly developing but absorbing thriller. I liked it a lot.

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.

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.