If I Gave the Award

Cover for On Canaan's SideHaving reviewed the last book on the Walter Scott Prize shortlist for 2012, it is time for me to give my opinion on whether the judges got it right. Of all the books in the shortlist, would I have picked On Canaan’s Side to be the winner?

For me, this is a much more clear-cut decision than for my last feature, where I compared the books on the shortlist for 2014. For that list, I felt that all the books were excellent, but I chose Life After Life for its combination of inventiveness and sense of history, acknowledging that the winner, An Officer and a Spy, was an excellent historical novel.

Cover for PureFor 2012, however, I can honestly say that I didn’t enjoy most of the books on the shortlist, or I enjoyed them only mildly. The one book that I enjoyed wholeheartedly was that year’s winner, On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry, about an Irish woman emigrating to the United States during the Troubles. I also thought that Pure was very interesting and showed a strong sense of the period. The books I enjoyed least were The Stranger’s Child and The Sisters Brothers.

So, for 2012, I agree with the judges. If I had picked the winner from this group, it would be On Canaan’s Side.

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Day 1132: The Quality of Mercy

Cover for The Quality of MercyThe Quality of Mercy was another book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. It concerns issues of slavery that were coming to the fore in 18th century England.

I did not become that involved with this novel, but that was not necessarily because of the novel itself. I didn’t realize until I started reading it that this novel was a sequel to Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, which I had not read. After reading four C. J. Sansom mysteries just so that I could read Heartstone in context, I decided not to go back and read Sacred Hunger first, reasoning that a book should be able to stand on its own. It was fairly easy to figure out what had happened in that novel, but perhaps I missed some background for the characters that would have added to the enjoyment of this one.

Much of The Quality of Mercy has to do with action that took place in Sacred Hunger, and to write this review, I am forced into spoilers for the previous novel. A ship filled with slaves was on its way to the Caribbean when the captain decided to throw some sick slaves overboard. A lawsuit in the current novel contends that the aim was to be able to claim insurance on the slaves that would not apply if they died onboard. The reason given for “jettisoning the cargo” was that the ship was running out of water, but the insurance company’s lawyers have witnesses who say that wasn’t true. In any case, the slaves rose up, assisted by some of the sailors, and took over the ship. The slaves and sailors landed in Florida, where they lived together for 12 years.

But Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship owner, made a vow to find these men after his father committed suicide because the incident ruined him. In Sacred Hunger he was successful in finding the men, and now the sailors involved are on trial for mutiny.

Frederick Ashton is a dedicated abolitionist who is attempting to defend the sailors in order to further the abolitionist cause. Both he and Kemp are zealots in their own ways. Ashton believes that nothing is more important that his cause and makes a request of his sister, Jane, that she considers unworthy of him when he realizes Kemp is attracted to her. Kemp is the type of person who always believes that what he wants is right. He was unstoppable in hunting down the sailors, who included his own cousin.

In the meantime, Sullivan, one of the sailors and an Irish fiddler, was able to walk out of jail when he substituted for a hired fiddler at a party in the jail. Trusting and feckless, he has vowed to go to Durham to see the family of one of his shipmates, who died in Florida. He does not know that Kemp is also on his way to Durham to examine the mine where his shipmate’s family is employed.

Although the novel is certainly well written and interesting, something held me back from being totally involved in the story. Maybe I would have been more interested if I had read the first book, but I’m not sure. I did not like either Kemp or Ashton, although Kemp undergoes some softening during this novel.

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Day 1128: C

Cover for CC is a novel that is as enigmatic as its title, which I assumed at first was a reference to the main character’s name, Serge Carrefax. But late in the novel we learn that the Egyptians had a symbol that looks like a C, representing life.

The novel follow’s Carrefax’s life from the age of two until he is in his twenties. Serge seems to view objects as intersections of shapes and angles, but we’re told repeatedly that he can’t see or draw perspective. As a child, he has a strong, competitive relationship with his older, brilliant sister, Sophie. After a tragedy, though, he doesn’t seem to care. Although the book blurb says he is haunted by this relationship, I saw little evidence of that.

The Carrefaxes run a school for the deaf and a silk manufactory. Simeon Carrefax is a micromanager of the school while letting his children virtually run wild. Serge’s mother runs the silk factory. Because of this upbringing among deaf children, I suppose, Serge often misunderstands what is said to him.

The novel is not without humor, including some hilarious descriptions of the school’s yearly pageant, which sounds both impressive and ridiculously pompous. However, Serge’s distance from everything lends the novel a kind of heaviness.

The novel moves through Serge’s fascination with messages, an adolescent obsession with the wireless, to his air force work in World War I, and finally ends with a seemingly pointless posting to Egypt. Throughout the novel, there are many unanswered questions.

This was another novel from my Walter Scott Prize list that was also on my Man Booker Prize list. Although I found the novel interesting, I also found it too detached and perplexing, and the main character not that fascinating, to like very much.

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Day 1074: Pure

Cover for PureThe subject matter of Pure is unusual, and at times the events within the novel seem almost dreamlike in nature. It is an imaginative novel that evokes a real sense of place and period.

In pre-revolutionary France, Jean-Baptiste Baratte awaits a minister in Versailles to ask for employment. He is a young engineer and is hopeful to be given an interesting project.

He does get a job, but he is disappointed in its nature. The cemetery of les Innocents in Paris is so stuffed with remains that the nearby neighborhoods are being polluted. Jean-Baptiste is to oversee the removal of the remains and eventually the church. For the sake of discretion, he is not supposed to reveal his mission until he must.

The novel follows the provincial Jean-Baptiste for a year as he explores Paris and pursues his project. It conveys a strong sense of the city and of the effect of the cemetery on nearby residents.

This is another novel that I probably wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been on my Walter Scott prize list. It is an interesting novel, reminding me a bit of Viper Wine.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for An Officer and a SpyI’m continuing my tradition of commenting on the award projects I have taken on by giving my opinion about whether the judges got it right. Yesterday, with An Officer and a SpyI finished reviewing the short listed books for the 2014 Walter Scott Prize for Historical FictionAn Officer and a Spy was the winner for that year.

I have to say that there were some excellent historical novels on the list for that year. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was my best book for one year, and since I read it during a different year, The Luminaries was my best book for another year. I also loved Fair HelenIn fact, I enjoyed all of the nominees for 2014. Of the three named above, Life After Life and The Luminaries are most inventive in structure.

Cover for Life After LifeSo, for this article, I was forced to consider the idea of giving a historical fiction prize. I think that the prize must partly depend upon how successfully the novel depicts the feel of the period or the historical events being described. Here, The Luminaries is not as strong as some of the others in its sense of time and place. An Officer and a Spy may not be as inventive in structure, but it tells a strong historical story. So, too, though, does Life After Life. So, because it combines an inventive structure with a strong historical background, I pick Life After Life, with the caveat that all of the nominees for this year were good ones.

Day 1008: An Officer and a Spy

Cover for An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, we know how the Dreyfus affair turned out, but in writing about it, Robert Harris has managed to infuse the story with suspense. He accomplishes this by concentrating not on what happens to Dreyfus himself but on the man who exposed the sham.

At the beginning of the novel, Georges Picquart is only peripherally involved in the Dreyfus affair, but the generals in charge see him as helpful and he is rewarded by being put in charge of the Statistical Section, the army’s intelligence department. Picquart does not want the post, but he soon finds he is good at his job.

His staff seems distrustful of him, while he believes that some of their methods are sloppy. He receives intelligence that indicates that there is still a traitor in the French army, and it is not long before he figures out that the army has found Dreyfus guilty for crimes committed by a Major Esterhazy.

When Picquart notifies his superiors of what he believes is a mistake, his investigation is shut down. Soon, he is sent on a mission out of the country and begins to believe that his own staff is working to discredit him. It becomes clear to him that Dreyfus was actually framed for Esterhazy’s crimes in a climate of antisemitism.

Soon, Picquart is striving to save his own career and reputation. But he also refuses to give up on his campaign to right a wrong.

This novel is deeply involving and at times truly exciting. I have not read Harris before, but picked this up because of my project to read finalists for the Walter Scott prize and since I have read it, have read most of Harris’s Cicero trilogy. This novel is a masterful historical novel that is full of suspense.

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Day 1004: Half-Blood Blues

Cover for Half-Blood BluesIn 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.

Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.

After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.

This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.

This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.

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