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.

 

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.

 

Review 1454: Milkman

Best of Ten!
Middle sister, the unnamed narrator in a novel where no one has a name, has a stalker. Actually, she has two. She lives in the 1970s in an unnamed city that is clearly Belfast, and at 18 she has no way to explain what is happening to her and no one to tell, anyway. The man she’s worried about is known as the Milkman, rumored to be a powerful renouncer-of-the-state. This stalking begins with him driving up next to her and offering her a ride. She knows not to get into his car.

That is all it takes for rumors to begin flying about that middle sister is having an affair with the Milkman. Eldest sister, egged on by her husband, who has been letching after middle sister since she was 11, arrives to berate her for this supposed affair with a middle-aged, married man.

But middle sister’s strategy for keeping safe in a dangerous world is to tell nothing about herself. That, and her mother’s constant queries about why she isn’t married yet, have caused her to keep secret her real relationship with maybe-boyfriend. It is the maybe part of this relationship that decides her not to tell maybe-boyfriend about the stalking either, when it progresses to the Milkman joining her while running and making clear that he knows every aspect of her life.

She does finally tell her Ma the truth, but her Ma is too busy upbraiding her for bringing shame upon the family with the affair and calls her a liar. So, middle sister is left to cope with her fears alone.

This sounds like a grim tale, and at some times it is, but it is told exuberantly, in a torrent of words, ideas, stories, asides, and circumlocutions. To give you an idea, about page 80 middle sister steps into an area called the ten-minute zone because it takes ten minutes to cross it. She describes the ten-minute zone and an explosion within it, then she goes into what she calls “the provenance of the eeriness of the ten-minute area” from which she relates a discussion with Ma about her asking weird questions, tells about her father’s history of depression and her Ma’s “hierarchy of suffering,” discusses her bafflement in “shiny people,” those who go around looking happy, finds the head of a dead cat and decides to bury it, compares cats and dogs and tells about an incident where the state killed all the neighborhood dogs, has another encounter with the Milkman and then with one real milkman, and so on until page 139, when she steps out of the ten-minute area. I would include an excerpt, but a short one would seem nonsensical and a long one would be, well, long.

Above all, the novel is funny, dazzling, gleeming. I was absolutely entranced by it. It is about more than middle sister and her adventures, it is about the effects on society of everyday terror, paranoia, gossip, constant attention to the behavior of your neighbors. This is a stunning novel that won the Booker Prize. It deserves it.

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Review 1394: Mothering Sunday

Best of Ten!
It’s a warm day in the spring of 1924, Mothering Sunday, a day when servants are released from their duties to visit their mothers. Jane Fairchild is a young maid in the home of the Nivenses, but she has no mother. She plans to curl up with a good book until she receives a phone call from her long-time lover.

Her lover is Paul Sheringham, the only son left after World War I to a neighborhood family. Although he is to be married in two weeks, he sets up a tryst with Jane in his own home while his parents and the servants are out.

Jane is to revisit these hours spent with her lover for the rest of her life. For something happens that afternoon that changes the course of her life.

This is a remarkable novel. It is very short, but it somehow covers the course of Jane’s entire life while minutely examining one scene, the meeting with her lover. It touches on every action and word, considers them from several sides just as the mind does as it re-examines an event. At the same time, it examines what qualities make a writer and what a writer attempts to do when writing. This is an excellent novel I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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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.

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.

 

 

Review 1382: The Sport of Kings

To paraphrase Sophia Brownrigg, a reviewer from The Guardian, The Sport of Kings is about horse racing like Moby Dick is about whales. It is ambitious—attempting to tell the history of Kentucky through that of two families—one white, wealthy, elitist, and bigotted, the other black, poor, and beleagered. It is sometimes magnificent in its prose and sometimes overblown. It is Southern Gothic, focussing on the ramifications of slavery and bigotry.

Henry Forge is the only son of a proud Kentucky family. As a youngster, he was brutalized by his father and lectured about his place in history. We have some sympathy with him until, in his teens, he commits an unforgivable act.

He rebels against his father by turning the family corn plantation into a horse farm, but the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. When his wife leaves him, his daughter is nine. He takes his daughter out of school and teaches her himself, all his lessons revolving around horses and breeding and including much out-of-date or just plain incorrect information. He is as elitist as his father—and worse.

Henrietta grows up with a talent for working with horses and a keen, cold intelligence. She also likes to pick up men for sex. Then she meets Allmon Shaughnessy, the new African-American groom, fresh from a prison program for working with horses.

Up to that point, the novel seems mostly a multigenerational saga, occasionally discoursing on geology, genetics, or history in the interludes. But after that it becomes wildly overblown at times, reminding me of the characteristics of Moby Dick that I disliked.

Like one other reader on Goodreads, every time I picked up this novel I wanted it to end. It is about deeply unpleasant characters; the least at fault—Allmon—whines his way through the novel. Its long asides are often irritating. It is sometimes beautiful and very dark, but it is often annoying.

Last year I read an essay—I can’t remember who wrote it—complaining about what I call “books only men like,” usually the ones that win awards. (I read this one for my James Tait Black prize project.) This essay commented that because a certain type of book gets attention and wins awards, now some women are beginning to write like men, using All the Birds, Singing as an example. I did not agree with the writer’s example but couldn’t help thinking of this essay while I read this novel.

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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.